Bowler’s (And the Children Shall Lead, 2014, etc.) YA novel pits brave, resourceful special needs teenagers against a whole shelf’s worth of supernatural scares.
Alex is an unusual student. Not only is he wheelchair-bound, but, like a lot of spina bifida sufferers, he’s a remedial reader. After he’s placed in a special class with his best friend, Roy, he faces mockery from other kids at Mark Twain High—particularly the cheerleaders and jocks, who call him a “crip” and “Roller Boy.” What they don’t know is that he possesses secret powers. Specifically, he’s a “spinner” who can mind-meld with others and take away their pain by absorbing it briefly into himself. Everything changes for Alex when, on his 15th birthday, he wakes from a dream in which he sees his teacher violently murdered. Arriving at school, he discovers that his dream was prophetic—and his teacher has been replaced by a sinister substitute. In the days that follow, he confronts knife-wielding attackers, eerie talismans, homicidal cats, a talking doll, malevolent men in suits, and a Faustian femme fatale. He also receives a long-lost message from his dead mother, warning him that “some say you will be the great peacemaker, and others the great destroyer.” There occasionally seem to be too many shadowy figures lurking around and too many cross-genre borrowings for the novel to establish a steady mood. However, Bowler effectively compensates for the overgrown garden of his imagination by communicating a thoughtful, sincere empathy for kids with disabilities. “We spend way too much time in this country focusing on what we perceive to be the weaknesses of others,” he writes in a prefatory note, and in this novel, he depicts his special needs kids not as victims but as real heroes. There are few worthier goals for a novelist, and his attempt here is largely successful.
An overstuffed horror story, but one that will both warm the heart and chill the spine.