Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.
“Zoe had plenty of secrets in the real world, but she’d never kept one in her dreams before. It was depressing because it meant that, in the end, she wasn’t safe anywhere.”
Zoe’s life has come unraveled since her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Unable to collect his life insurance, she and her mother have been forced to sell their house in Danville and move into a dumpy apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin while her mom looks for a job. Zoe has only recently gotten out of the hospital herself, and while she isn’t cutting anymore, the temptation is ever-present. School is a drag, and her only friends are miles away, leaving sleep as her only escape, where she can slip into a dream-world where a treehouse and an imaginary brother wait for her. But lately she’s been dreaming about a black dog, in a dream world where her brother is nowhere to be found. By day, she goes about her life as usual, stumbling upon a used record store that allows her to feel close to her father through their mutual love of punk music. But Emmett, the proprietor of the record store, says he can do her one better—that he has a way Zoe can see and even speak to her dead father. And it will cost practically nothing at all…
In Dead Set, Richard Kadrey weaves together punk rock, underworld mythos, and urban fantasy elements into a fast-paced narrative about a girl who must overcome her grief and self-destructive behaviours in order to save someone she loves. Kadrey’s rich knowledge of mythology is obvious, and Dead Set is full of enough references and symbolism to give this relatively short novel great depth. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s creepier works with young protagonists, such as Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Kadrey has all of that darkness, but more grit; he handles grieving and self-harm honestly, without coddling the reader. Trading with Emmett is a devil’s bargain, but it allows Zoe to catch a glimpse into the world of adults, to understand her parents as people who are fallible, but also more complete than her idealized childhood images of them. Zoe’s emotional journey and the rich mythology were enchanting enough to keep me going, despite the fact that the novel got a bit out of hand in second half, with a lot of running around, and almost-goodbyes that felt more tedious than tense.
Something about this novel niggled me as I read, though it took me a long time to put my finger on it; I wouldn’t know who to recommend this book to. I picked it up thinking it was a YA novel, but it is dark and violent enough that plenty of parents would object to it. My local library shelves it in the adult fiction collection, and it is published by Harper Voyager, the adult fantasy imprint, rather than Harper Teen. But violence, language, and dark themes aside, this feels like a YA book in most respects; it deals primarily with Zoe’s coming of age, and there are undoubtedly teens who need books that will deal this honestly with grief and self-harm. However, even that assessment was thrown off by Kadrey’s writing style, which in this story sometimes feels better suited to Middle Grade fiction. Moving at a fast pace, he lays things out quickly and simply, but the foreshadowing is extraordinarily blunt. When a character tells Zoe where to meet him if they happen to get separated, they will, of course, get separated. If a character warns Zoe not to go down any unlit streets, you can bet that she will end up down an unlit street in short order. This kind of stark foreshadowing is fine for Middle Grade readers, who are still learning the conventions of storytelling, but it feels heavy handed in a YA narrative, and even more off-putting to the adult reader. This isn’t a book that coddles the reader when it comes to the dark subject matter, so this hand-holding in the storytelling department is even more perplexing, and it left me with mixed feelings about the book.