So here I am, working my way through my honestly impressive backlog of ebooks from Angry Robot and Strange Chemistry. I have zero memory of Poltergeeks, the first book in this series from Sean Cummings, except maybe a vague impression that I liked it. Fortunately, Student Bodies makes it easy enough to dive into Julie Richardson’s life as a Shadowcull that I didn’t feel lost at all. Also, disclaimer: I read the first third of this book in a loud bar at around 1 am because the dancefloor was too crowded for me to actually dance and that’s what you do when you’re DD while all your friends are busy drinking and trying to talk to boys even though it’s very loud in there.
Julie Richardson is sixteen (?) and a Shadowcull, which means she’s the witch in charge of stopping badder witches from doing bad stuff. She’s also in high school (obvs) and now she has a boyfriend, and her dad is dead (he used to be the local Shadowcull) but he’s still around in ghost form, so hey, totally normal family dynamic, amirite? Just when Julie thinks things are calming down on the magic front, she and her boyfriend, Marcus, discover that someone is inflicting popular kids at school with Soul Worms, little magical buggies that suck out your soul and force you to do stuff you don’t like, up to and including suicide. As Julie and Marcus try to get to the bottom of this dark plot, they realize that this isn’t someone targeting just popular kids—an old and malevolent force is hoping to take out a whole lot more of the high school population, and she doesn’t really care who she has to kill to do it.
This is a dark book. Like, it’s YA, but there’s profanity and a fair amount of highly serious situations in here. And by “it’s YA, but…” I’m not trying to say this stuff doesn’t belong in YA. It’s just not necessarily something I’m used to encountering. Julie and Marcus are dealing with some very adult situations and are responding pretty much the way I would expect mature teenagers to respond—as do the adults around them. If there’s one thing I can say about Cummings, it’s the way he doesn’t try to create contrived drama. Is Julie’s mom happy that Julie is dating a non-witch? No. And she expresses that. Yet she also recognizes that forbidding Julie from seeing Marcus would be a non-starter, so there’s that. The drama in this book comes from the good, ol’ fashioned application of dark magic. Good times were had by all!
In my review of Poltergeeks, I critiqued the way that Julie seems almost too self-aware. Not sure if Cummings is better here or if I was just being overly-critical there; I didn’t pick up on that this time around. Cummings includes treatments of some serious issues, like high school bullying (and not to mention dealing with the deaths of peers) in a fairly sensitive way. The stuff Julie and (to some extent) Marcus go through is incredibly traumatizing, right up to and including the unfortunate but incredibly poignant and understandable outcome at the end of the book (more on that in a bit).
Probably the best thing about this book, though, is just the excellent pacing. Cummings keeps the plot going, each event leading into the next, with just enough pauses to catch our characters’ breaths but never enough that the reader starts getting bored. There’s a good balance between intense, explosive action sequences and exposition, conversations, etc. Student Bodies definitely isn’t a boring book. Even though the plot is somewhat too straightforward at times (I mean, seriously—did anyone not suspect it was Willard and the creepy psychologist all along?), just the precision of its execution alone is enough to make up for that.
As with Poltergeeks, I appreciate the Canadian setting of Calgary and all the references to Canadian winter, up to and including having to warm up a car long enough so the windows don’t frost up too badly. More notably, Student Bodies features Twyla Standingready, an Indigenous witch and member of the (real life) Tsuu T’ina Nation. It’s not my lane to comment on Cummings’ portrayal of magic mixed with Indigenous spiritual practices. All I can really say is that I’m glad he made the attempt and that it’s definitely better than some other stuff I’ve seen (but that doesn’t mean it’s not problematic).
I’m more conflicted about the ending. I’m just not sure how to read Marcus breaking up with Julie. On the one hand, it feels a bit like the kind of contrived plot development you get in a series: these two people love each other, so of course they can’t be together, because then there would be no drama! That kind of decision always bothers me, because there is so much potential for conflict within a relationship. On the other hand, Marcus’ decision really does make sense given what he has been through. Maybe it’s just the abruptness? Like, he’s so constant and understanding throughout the whole novel. His tribulations during the climax are definitely traumatic enough to provoke this kind of reaction. It’s just very shocking—which I guess makes it all that easier to sympathize with Julie.
Student Bodies is a far more layered, emotionally satisfying book than its description and the first chapter or so might imply. It’s a light read, in the sense that it is easy to read, but it is not a light read, in the sense that it has a lot of dark events to it. The plot is simple but the characters complex enough to keep me coming back for more, if a third book in this series ever emerges.