Bad Boy by Elliot Wake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Lie awake in bed at night
And think about your life
Do you want to be different?"
-30 Seconds To Mars, "A Beautiful Lie"
Let's face it. This is the book Elliot Wake was born to write.
It's barely 250 pages, but in those 250 pages, Wake gives us his most psychologically raw and intense material yet. He gives us his best protagonist yet, too, in Renard Grant - a vlogger documenting his gender transition (some of his vlogs form interludes in the story, which consist of transcripts that even include intermittent jump cuts, perfectly capturing the style as is often seen on YouTube, etc.), when he's not lending his services to Black Iris. I'm glad to see Wake isn't at all abandoning the 'verse he created when he wrote as Leah Raeder - in fact, characters from Black Iris and Cam Girl play strong supporting roles here, but this is Ren's standalone story to tell.
And what an eye-popping story. It's not only loaded with issues specific to Ren as a trans man, but also deals heavily in the dark side of social justice. Because, after all, Black Iris carries out social justice in the shadows, and in this line of work, Ren finds himself wondering about everything he sees. Are men always aggressive and women always fragile, or is that merely how society paints them? This, and many other questions, linger in my mind after reading this book, and of course there are no easy answers.
More easily answerable, however, are the questions of who's out to get Ren - because as much as Goodreads would have you believe this book is a romance, they lie. It's a pretty dark thriller, with someone out there orchestrating a massive campaign to drive Ren's raw psyche into the abyss. And it works wonders too. Ren may be a physically tough guy, but emotionally, he's fighting to overcome his gender dysphoria, and that makes him vulnerable to some pretty nasty gaslighting attacks. I won't get into specifics because spoilers, but you're not gonna see most of it coming - and much of it will really tap into the book's thematic question of whether your gender is what you make of it, or what others decide for you.
I'll tell you which part of the book stuck with me the most, though. Perhaps it was the most universal of Ren's experiences, even with his own spin on it as a trans man. At one point, he films a vlog describing, very candidly, his struggles with depression. Going into this, you know it doesn't go up on YouTube, because it's prefaced with "Deleted Vlog," but it still hurts all the more when this is followed by a far more chipper, and very artificially chipper at that, vlog.
Not gonna lie. This was me reading the deleted vlog.
All along, Wake has promised his most visceral, most harrowing novel yet, and for sure, he's delivered. Not only is this my new favorite book of his (sorry, Cam Girl), it's also the first where I want to read another story centering on its protagonist. In other words, a direct sequel. Seriously, as meaty as these 250 words are, I'm dying to see Ren headline more Wake books.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be putting this book into the hands of a character of mine who needs this read. Desperately.
And I'd also like to offer Ren a hug, as paltry as it might be given what he's gone through.
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