What if a teen girl who struggled with an eating disorder suddenly became Famine, the Horseman of the Apocalypse?
That question was all it took for me to dive into Hunger, the first book of the Riders of the Apocalypse Young Adult series written by Jackie Morse Kessler. I’ve done a little bit of work in the Revelation, so I was instantly intrigued. As quickly as I could, I also picked up Rage – in which a girl who cuts becomes War – and Loss, which features a boy who is bullied at school and takes care of a grandfather dying of Alzheimer’s at home.
The Horsemen represent our human need to control, and our frustrated inability to attain that control. Each of the teens Death recruits has killed him- or herself in the act of trying to wrest some control out of their chaotic lives. Death offers them a choice: die or become a Horseman.
Once the teens assume the mantle of the Horsemen, once they have power and control, they begin to come to terms with their suffering. As War tells Missy (the cutter) when she witnesses a civil war,
RELIGION. POLITICS. GIVE IT THE NAME YOU WISH, BUT IN THE END, IT’S ALL ABOUT CONTROL. IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT CONTROL.
Jackie offers us a fascinating perspective on Apocalypse:
In these books, the Horsemen aren’t bringing about the End of the World, they’re preventing it.
For each of these teens, the End of the World is tied intimately to the ends of their (individual) worlds. Their need to control has summoned Death for them, much as our own need for control causes war, famine, pestilence and ultimately Death all over the globe.
Wrestling with their Horseman personae teaches the teens how to confront their own disorders. But the books never feel forced or preachy. The message comes from the story itself, from how expertly Jackie weaves the teens’ individual plights into the larger human questions we all face together.
These books work so well because Jackie doesn’t write about religion and politics and free will. She writes about teens we all recognize – teens we’ve all been, and allows the mythology of the Horsemen to recontextualize their suffering on a global scale.
My problems aren’t just my problems. They are common, human struggles.
In every story, every struggle, at the fringe of every problem looms the specter of Death. So too in the books. Every Horseman is recruited by Death, mentored by Death. As Death (who looks like Kurt Cobain, by the way) tells the boy who would become Pestilence:
The world is always about to end, William Ballard. The nature of life is to be always on the brink of death. — Death
A series like this could easily become formulaic – even with only three books out. But Jackie makes each teen feel real and unique. Each Horseman has its own personality, its own domain. Even their horses are unique (and really fun). The plots of the three books will keep you guessing, all the way to their satisfying conclusions.
As the books advance, they slowly build the mythology of the world. The Horsemen’s connection to the Horsemen of Revelation is at once clear and (so far) unexplained.
This is a rare series: each book feels complete and self-contained, yet the whole series is also cohesive. And, of course, there’s still one book to come, one Horseman who’s different from all the others: Death.