For most people, the idea that something is lurking beneath the bed waiting for just the right moment to leap out and grab them is a routine part of childhood, but one that goes away as we grow into adolescence and come to understand there’s no such thing as monsters.
Except…what if there is?
Sixteen-year-old Billy knows all too well that the things that go bump in the night are, unfortunately, real. And that they aren’t confined to either the night or under the bed. You see, not only can Billy see monsters, he’s actually been to the other side, to their realm.
There, he received training that allows him to move through our world fully aware of the monsters among us, and which gave him the skills to do what he can to fight those monsters that seek to do more than coexist on our plane.
Yet even Billy had no idea just how ambitious some of the more aggressive members of the realm of monsters were, or what they had planned.
Until his chance meeting with a girl named Scarlett.
Sixteen-year-old Scarlett doesn’t believe in monsters. She knows that the human heart is dark enough without the need for “monsters” from another world. She also knows, however, that there’s something different about her younger sister, Hester. So much so, Hester was handpicked to attend the exclusive and prestigious Elderigh College, a school known for turning out heads of both business and state. Hester, on the other hand, is like Billy; she knows all too well that monsters are real. She also knows they seem to be particularly fascinated with her. She’s learned that to avoid their attention she must keep silent, both in word and thought, going through life as much as a blank slate as possible. To open her mind, or her mouth, opens the door to the monsters.
Seeking at first merely to impress Scarlett, as sixteen-year-old boys are prone to do, Billy soon gets drawn into far more than he bargained for as it quickly becomes apparent something quite sinister is afoot at Elderigh College. Too bold, or hormone driven, to back off, Billy is drawn into a battle that pits him, Scarlett and Hester, and a small group of “turncoat” monsters against a vast conspiracy between the two realms, one which threatens to forever break down the tenuous boundary between the monsters’ world and ours, letting loose a plague of monsters onto an earthly plane completely unprepared and unable to resist.
The realm of monsters was a vicious and alien place. Every beast was both predator and prey, hunting and hunted through forests of pain, mountains of torment and seas of dread. Yet, despite containing sights only glimpsed in the fever dreams of the mad, the realm of monsters was not so very far removed from our own. As one of Billy’s teachers put it, ‘Ours are two realities separated only by the light; with the coming of the dark, the distance between them vanishes away to nothing.’
As he first demonstrated in The Office of Lost & Found, which was not only one of my top reads of 2011 but which is one of my favorite reads ever, author Vincent Holland-Keen excels at world building in a way few can match. The details and layer upon layer of nuance that comprise Billy’s Monsters are staggering in their depth and completeness. And it’s not just a bunch of wacky, made-up stuff thrown together—it all makes sense, in a way things so foreign arguably have no business making sense.
In Holland-Keen’s skilled hands, not only do the intricate but earthly details of castle-like Elderigh College come to life (Holland-Keen’s rendering of the college below), but so does the strange and disturbing realm of monsters, which is depicted with such confidence and clarity that it seems perfectly normal for a world to exist where people can be captured and slowly devoured inside a painting until nothing of them is left except a colored residue mistaken for paint—all while a near-perfect copy of them is set loose in the world to pursue ill intentions.
As do the characters and settings in the book itself, Billy’s Monsters cleverly manages to straddle more than one world. On the surface, it’s a straight-up fantasy book, one that hits the sweet spot that allows it to be enjoyed equally by teens and adults alike. On a slightly deeper level, Holland-Keen is clearly playing around with margins and edges, exploring the idea of the spaces between things and how that gets filled. There’s also a subtle yet clear commentary on the darkness that compels individuals to seek out and abuse power, as well as the potentially toxic idea of “specialness” that seems to permeate institutions, both state and private, and which encourages people to behave in self-centered ways not conducive to the well-being of society at large.
Quite simply, Billy’s Monsters is a brilliant piece of writing that fires on every cylinder, as good for pure entertainment as it is at encouraging those willing to look a little deeper to think critically about the world around them and their place/function in it.
Billy’s Monsters is available from Fox Spirit Books (ISBN: 978-1909348707).