By Jackie Morse Kessler
Publication Date: March 20, 2012
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal
Fifteen-year-old Billy Ballard is the kid that everyone picks on, from the school bullies to the teachers. But things change drastically when Death tells Billy he must stand in as Pestilence, the White Rider of the Apocalypse. Now armed with a Bow that allows him to strike with disease from a distance, Billy lashes out at his tormentors…and accidentally causes an outbreak of meningitis. Horrified by his actions, Billy begs Death to take back the Bow. For that to happen, says Death, Billy must track down the real White Rider—who is lost in his memories.
In his search, Billy travels through White Rider’s life: from ancient Phrygia, where the man called King Mita agrees to wear the White Rider’s Crown, to Sherwood Forest, where Pestilence figures out how to cheat Death; from the docks of Alexandria, where cartons of infested grain are being packed onto a ship that will carry the plague, to the Children’s Crusade in France—all the way to what may be the end of the world. When Billy finally finds the White Rider, the teen convinces the man to return to the real world.
But now the insane White Rider plans to unleash something awful on humanity—something that could make the Black Death look like a summer cold. Billy has a choice: he can live his life and pretend he doesn’t know what’s coming, or he can challenge the White Rider for his Crown. Does one bullied teenager have the strength to stand his ground—and the courage to save the world?
My love for this series just grows insanely with each book. They aren’t just well-written, because with Jackie Morse Kessler, that’s sort of a given. They’re smart and have social messages that give you a nice rap on the head without bludgeoning you and the whole time, you’re getting sucked into this series. They’re the Lay’s Potato Chips of books.
There seriously isn’t a thing I can add to the synopsis above so I’m going to give some background on the series that you’ll need if you haven’t read the other two books (which I really, really recommend).
The series is (obviously) about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine and Pestilence. While Death never changes, the physical forms of the other three Riders can be killed and need to be replaced – and something of the essence or aspect of each Rider passes into the next. Death chooses each new Rider, currently appearing to them in the form of a certain deceased blonde grunge rocker when he decides they’re ready for his offer. The first book, Hunger, was for the Black Rider Famine and involved a girl who was anorexic. The second, Rage, was about the Red Rider War and was about a girl who was a cutter.
Death always approaches his selection for the next Rider when he knows they’re reaching some sort of final crisis. In Billy’s case, the bullying has made his daily fear unbearable and his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s is making home life impossible – something is about to break and when Death offers him the White Rider’s Bow that can spread Pestilence, his anger and fear drives him to use it. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s ever been made fun of or been the butt of any joke who wouldn’t be able to relate in some way to that fleeting moment of satisfaction Billy has when he unleashes Pestilence on one of his torturers – and many of us can also probably understand his self-loathing and anxiety afterwards when he realizes what harm he’s actually done.
In each case of a new person learning to become a Rider, they have to figure out that it isn’t about raining down destruction all the time, it’s about finding balance. Sometimes it’s metaphoric but in this story, it’s literal. The White Rider is flip sides of a coin – Pestilence and The Conqueror, both bringer and healer of disease. His paranoia, hatred of Death, loss of loved ones and refusal to Ride have ruined Mita and he’s not interested in using both sides any more.
Just because of the way the story has to be told, with Billy living Mita’s experiences and his own as well, the book is more divided in perspectives than the other two so there isn’t the same sense of Billy struggling to accept his place as a Rider, even though he really is, just by proxy through Mita.
Who Billy is and what he accomplishes outside the search for the White Rider bookends the story and it dilutes the impact a little bit. The bullying that takes place in the beginning is just heartbreaking – I was lucky enough that probably the worst that was ever said to me was that I was a nerd and a string bean, and I had to break out my box of book Kleenex for Billy more than once.
It isn’t mentioned in the blurb, but it’s definitely worth mentioning that an important part of Billy’s home life is his grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Along with the bullying, it ended up making his home a literal prison with locks on all the windows and doors to keep his grandfather from wandering outside. (A portion of the proceeds of the sales of Loss is being donated to the Alzheimer’s Association)
My Summary: I haven’t done a terrific job with the “this is why” I loved this book because sometimes a book and a series just takes me past that. I can tell you how the book works, some of the things that I thought were the most meaningful parts but the visceral stuff, the things that really hit me in the gut, sometimes I can’t articulate. This series is like that for me. It hits me in personal places (some that I don’t always want to go to). I can tell you that I recommend it, I can tell you that this is really impeccably written and the mythology of the Four Horsemen is really fascinating – all of that outside of the social issues. Everything else – sheer bonus.