Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a hard book to review, as it's kind of a marmite book. It has a lot to say about cults, religious fundamentalism, faith and belief (and disbelief), identity, and accepting people for who they are, but its themes are so wrapped in gore and body horror that I'm afraid the trappings will turn a lot of people off. (Seriously. I can handle body horror fairly well, with some exceptions such as Stephen Graham Jones' work, but if you're sensitive to that don't even THINK about reading this book.)
The post-apocalyptic nature of the story also comes from a very specific place: this is a fundamentalist Christian apocalypse, peppered with many Bible quotations, mainly from the book of Revelation. If anybody has read Revelation I'm sure you know the passages I'm talking about: the four horsemen, the beasts coming out of the sea, the fire and blood and fury of the Christian God ready to wipe out all sinners. In this case, the apocalypse is the Flood, a weaponized virus created by the cult of the Angels that kills nearly all of the Earth's population and creates monsters out of the survivors.
Our protagonist is Benji, the (trans) son of the leader of the Angels, who was also experimented on to become the Seraph. This is the culmination of the Flood virus that will remake his body into one of the angelic seraphs described in the book of Ezekiel and lead the cult to Heaven by causing their deaths, wiping out the final remnants of the human race. Benji tries to flee the Angels with his father, but his father is killed. Benji himself is rescued by the Watch, a group of Flood survivors from the local LGBTQ center who are trying to rid the town of the Angels and their monstrous helpers, the Graces. Because Benji is turning into the Seraph, he can talk to the Graces. The Watch takes him in, and the story follows Benji slowly deprogramming himself from the cult's beliefs and rhetoric, finding his own queer family within the Watch (particularly Nick, the Watch leader who is on the autism spectrum), and accepting who he truly is and demanding the people around him do the same.
There is a lot of righteous anger running through this book, as Benji confronts what the Angels have done to him and the world. In the beginning, Nick is planning to turn Benji over to the Vanguard, another survivors' group using the Watch to kill Angels and clean up the city in exchange for food. Benji soon puts the quietus to that idea, demanding that Nick and the others see him for who he is.
"No, you listen to me." My voice comes out in a terrible pained rasp. "Listen to me. My name is Benjamin Woodside. I'm gay and trans as hell, I am a boy, my pronouns are he/him, and I am a goddamn person." That is everything the Angels never let me have. Everything I am. "I joined the Watch because I thought you understood that. If I knew you were going to be like my fucking mom, I never would have stayed. I thought you were better than them!"
Nick slowly realizes that Benji is his friend (and maybe more) and he cannot turn him over to the Vanguard. Instead, as Benji's bodily transformation to the Seraph looms ever closer, they come up with a plan to send Benji back to the Angels and use his control over the Graces to destroy the cult from within. In so doing, Benji has to confront the people who denied his identity, insisted on viewing him as a girl and using his deadname:
If Mom wanted to name me Esther, then fine. I'll live up to the name and lay it in an honored resting place at their graves. I won't be "blessed Seraph," I will not be theirs, and there is nothing they can do about it. I've taken what they've given me and turned it into a mockery of them. I will turn it into what destroys them.
If they want me to be a monster one step closer to God, that's fine.
In what world was their God ever a benevolent one?
In the end, the Angels are brought down and the cult is destroyed, but Benji's physical transformation is complete and he seemingly cannot go back. The one knock I have against this book is that the ending is not unsatisfying, but it's a bit abrupt and leaves more than one dangling thread. It doesn't feel like the first in a series, and I haven't heard about it being anything other than a standalone, but the story and characters could plausibly be picked up in another book. In any event, this is a powerful condemnation of cults and fundamentalist Christianity, and a plea for understanding and acceptance of queer people. If you can handle the gore and body horror, there's a lot here to think about.
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