A Review of The Twelve-Fingered Boy (book 1 in The Incarcerado Trilogy) by John Hornor Jacobs
by REBECCA, March 18, 2013
Shreve: juvie’s 15-year old fast-talking, savvy candy dealer with a heart of . . . gold-ish
Jack: Shreve’s new roomie is young, quiet, vulnerable, and clearly drawing some sinister interest
Mr. Quincrux: the sinister interest (and the best name award goes to!)
Shreve’s got things pretty much figured out at Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center: when to sell, where to avoid, who to sweet talk, and how to keep a low profile. When his new roommate, Jack, shows up, though, everything Shreve knows goes to pot. Jack may have six fingers on each hand but that’s nothing compared to the fact that he seems to have superpowers. And when Mr. Quincrux and associates show up with the ability to invade minds and control what people do, Jack and Shreve make a break for it, trying to outrun them on a cross-country chase. There’s only one little wrinkle: ever since Mr. Quincrux rooted around in Shreve’s noggin, Shreve has found that he can do the same . . .
The Twelve-Fingered Boy is my absolute favorite kind of book: it’s set in a gritty, realist world but has elements of unreal powers. This is the best of both worlds, for my money, because the gritty realism provides the occasion for strong prose and complex characters, and the special powers provide an opportunity for fun, creative genre twists and turns. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is told from Shreve’s perspective, and he is an eminently likable chap. He’s a cocky smooth talker who is also sensitive and insightful. He’s a smartass who takes Jack under his wing and protects him. And, in the second half of the book, he wrestles with his own relationship to power.
John Hornor Jacobs’ prose is strong, making for insightful characterization, varied dialogue, fast-paced action, and contemplative interior monologues:
“On the inside, where all the wards were orange, everyone tries to be different. Some with crazy dos, some wearing earrings, the more desperate scratching tats on their hands with black pen ink and needles. Kids talk big, walk big, kick out their chests, tell jokes in overloud voices, laugh hard at unfunny jokes. They try to put a stamp down on themselves. They want to define who they are, and who they aren’t, by drawing lines in an ever-changing sandbox.
But the ones who are different, the ones who really would stand out if their differences were known to the general pop, well . . . they don’t want to be different at all. They want to be just like everybody else. The boys so desperately trying to be different, well, if they get a whiff of something truly foreign, they’ll destroy it. Nothing that different can be allowed to exist, to prove that they’re all alike.”
I love this exchange between Shreve and his mother:
‘Honey, why do you have to call me that?’
‘Moms. You used to call me momma.’
‘It’s just one of those things, Moms.’
‘I don’t like it. It’s like you’re saying I’m . . . I don’t know . . .’
‘More than one.’
‘Yeah, like that. Like I’m more than one person.’
We’re all more than one person. But I don’t say that.
‘Okay, momma. Okay.'”
When Mr. Quincrux tries to “recruit” Jack for his talents, Shreve sticks up for him and everything goes to hell. They run away from the detention center because they know Quincrux will stop at nothing to get them. Jack, who doesn’t even really know what his powers are, is terrified that he will hurt someone and Shreve has suddenly developed powers of his own—or has he merely unlocked the door on powers that everyone has? The Twelve-Fingered Boy paints a complicated picture of Jack and Shreve’s relationships with their powers, and it’s a relationship that only gets more complicated as the story continues.
‘How did you do it? . . . You did the same trick Quincrux and the witch did.’
I think for a bit. I can’t come up with an answer for him.
‘I don’t know, Jack. Maybe something transferred into me when Quincrux . . . ‘
I don’t know any other way to say it, and it hurts to admit it, even to Jack.
‘When he raped me. I think part of him, his residue or something, was left behind.'”
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
Because I received The Twelve-Fingered Boy as an ARC, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a standalone novel until I got to the last page and looked it up on Goodreads. Which is a good thing: the world and characters are fully developed and there wasn’t even a hint that we were in a “first act” type first book in a trilogy. Sure there were things that weren’t entirely explained, but I assumed that was because it’s a fast-paced book. However, the second I learned that it was the first in a trilogy, I got excited—no, not just because that meant there was more to come (although, YAY! there’s more to come!). It was because it’s very clear that John Hornor Jacobs is interested in asking questions the permutations of which this first novel could only begin to explore.
Once Shreve discovers he has the ability to (to shorthand it) read and change minds, he and Jack use it as a purely practical tool: to get money, food, hotels, and transportation. It’s necessary for their survival and dead useful for flying under the radar. Little by little, though, the boundaries of these powers become permeable and Shreve is forced to ask a number of questions that have been lurking in the back of his mind since he first acquired them: what does it mean for a kid who has grown up powerless to suddenly have so much power? when you know that your power comes from someone evil, how do you know you won’t become evil? what are your responsibilities as a result of that power? etc.
All in all, I’d say The Twelve-Fingered Boy absolutely lives up to its intentions: gritty realism, an interesting adventure, a seesaw of power and corruption, the posing of ethical dilemmas, friendship, a dynamic and creepy turn . . . it’s got it all. And with two more books to come, I’ve no doubt that The Incarcerado Trilogy will impress.
Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.
Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamine Alire Sáenz (2009). This is one of the more beautifully-written books out there. Sáenz is also a poet, and it absolutely shows in his command of prose. The combination of such gorgeous prose and a difficult story, narrated by a character who is dealing with the aftereffects of some horrible events adds up to a book that changed the way I thought about first-person narratives. My full review of Last Night I Sang To the Monster is HERE.
procured from: I received an ARC of The Twelve-Fingered Boy from the publisher (thanks!) with no compensation on either side. The Twelve-Fingered Boy is now available!