Book Review: Children Without Faces by Erik Marshall

Children Without Faces: A Novel of the Roughlands – 4 stars

One more death shouldn’t matter… In the Roughlands, you can die a thousand different ways. And in the town of Cold Harbor, between the cursed forest, the dark cliffs, and the wild and bitter sea: double that amount. But twelve-year-old Toby won’t accept this as an answer when his own little brother vanishes from home. Clues lie in the Thicket, a tangle of slums that Cold Harbor prefers to forget…and in the rumors of demonic magic, which the adults refuse to hear. Aided only by his troubled best friend, Dani, a handful of mostly-hostile street children, and his own sheer determination to see his brother safely home, Toby finds himself up against monsters beyond his imagination – including the human kind. Erik Marshall weaves fantasy and suspense in this dark coming-of-age tale, a debut novel that will grip your heart…and keep the pages turning.

This story is about kids, but it is no way for kids. Toby faces the typical problems of a tween: adults not listening, getting blamed for things not his fault, and trouble with a younger brother. In his case, these problems are significantly more deadly than usual. The story involves rape, murder, and demon possession, and most of it happens to kids.

I liked Toby, a spunky dumbass who forges ahead despite having no real idea what’s going on. His sense of responsibility thrusts him into a leadership role, and he shines in it. The story spans about a week (I wasn’t keeping track) of time, and during it, his eyes are opened to the rotten underbelly of his small town. In proper hero fashion, he only finds it because he’s busy trying to rescue his brother.

Cold Harbor is a really awful place. The rain is acid, the forest around it is full of monsters, the ocean crashes against its seaside cliffs, outsiders are unwelcome, and boys reach adulthood at the tender age of fourteen. I feel the same way about it that I do about upper Minnesota: why would anybody live there? What madness possessed the people who originally settled there? (I’m sure upper Minnesota is delightful in the summer. Can’t say the same for Cold Harbor.)

Dani reminds me of some people I know. In some ways, I wish she’d been the main character instead, because I felt a greater connection to her and her struggles. This may simply be an issue of gender on my part. The author did a fine job with her.

Overall, I’m hesitant to recommend this too broadly because of the dark elements. Though there’s little in the way of gore and no sensualized or highly descriptive violence or grossness, the events themselves may be quite disturbing to gentler readers, especially since it happens to kids. Further, it’s about kids, and the author does a good job of capturing the mentality of a child. If you can get past these things, it’s quite good.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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