This review was originally posted on Goodreads!Mr. Big Empty (Hollow Folk, #1) by Gregory Ashe
Representation: Gay, Bisexual, Mental Health
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Vie Eliot arrives in the small town of Vehpese, Wyoming with little more than the clothes--and scars--on his back. Determined to make a new life for himself after escaping his abusive mother, he finds that living with his estranged father brings its own problems.
Then Samantha Oates, the girl with blue hair, goes missing, and Vie might be the only one who can find her. His ability to read emotions and gain insight into other people’s darkest secrets makes him the perfect investigator, with only one small problem: he wants nothing to do with his gift.
When the killer begins contacting Vie through a series of strange cards, though, Vie is forced to hone his ability, because Samantha was not the killer’s only target.
And, as Vie learns, he is not the only psychic in town.
Now to figure out what to do with the rest of my life
I guess it’ll take me at LEAST that long to put the pieces of my heart back together
I love that self-publishing is a thing now, for a whole lot of reasons. But in my personal experience, 99 times out of 100, if a book is self-published it’s going to end up on my DNF pile. I will not pretend even for one second that a book being traditionally published means it’s good, but…it’s basically a truism at this point that a lot – maybe even most – of self-published books probably shouldn’t have been.
The Hollow Folk series is one which justifies the existence of self-publishing. Hells, the Hollow Folk books make me forgive the self-publishing world for Freaking Shades of Freaking Grey.
That is how damn good they are.
They’re deceptive. They don’t look like much. The covers are simple; the price is suspiciously low (I have only anecdotal data, but self-pubbed books that cost so little are usually some of the worst); the blurbs sound – well, like blurbs. When has a book ever been done true justice by its blurb? Read the summaries of each book, and you’ll only glimpse the faintest outline of what this story actually is.
You can try and force these books into boxes, if you want. You can try and say they’re mysteries, and they’re urban fantasy, and hey, look, the main character is 16, that must make them YA! But you’re going to be wrong – you can’t help being wrong – because this series defies any attempt at pigeon-holing. Books like these are why self-publishing needs to exist – because a trad publisher would have a nervous breakdown trying to force them onto one specific shelf, in one specific genre; trying to figure out which audience to market them to. For the most part, trad-publishing likes their books neatly categorised, pinned to cardboard like butterflies for display, and Hollow Folk is not a butterfly.
It’s a phoenix, and it will set your soul on fire and burn your heart to the ground, and it’s so fucking beautiful that the pain of it being over is a thousand times worse than what it puts you through.
(It’s okay. Phoenixes rise from the ashes, and Hollow Folk shows your heart how to do the same. It’ll put you back together after taking you apart. Just don’t expect the process to leave you unchanged.)
Here is the basic, briefest glimpse of what this story is: there’s a boy who’s a little bit psychic, and a lot messed-up, and he doesn’t mean to get pulled into solving a murder, but he does. He fights so hard to be good, although he’d never put it that way; he doesn’t think he has any goodness in him. But he does: so much that when the monsters come, he never even considers not being on the front lines. He never even considers not being the front line. He makes friends and enemies and he falls in love. There are mysteries and murders, fights and battles; there’s typical teen drama, and drama far less typical. There’s healing and redemption, harsh truths and gentler ones, and finding a way to live with both.
There is, if it’s something important to you (it was to me) a lot of queerness. Not in the sense of a huge spectrum of diversity – there are several gay male characters, one bisexual, and an older male character who is definitely attracted to men, but I don’t remember if the latter is explicitly gay or if there’s the possibility that he’s bi or pan. But in the sense that queerness is an explicit and integral part of the story, of the main character’s arc/journey, then yes, there’s a lot of it, and personally I was glad of it. I can’t remember ever reading a more realistic depiction of a young gay man – all his various other issues aside, Vie’s approach to his sexuality and his romantic relationships felt real. Yes, he thinks plenty about sex. Yes, he stumbles and fucks up sometimes. (Okay, a lot. But most of those times aren’t due to Normal Teenager-ness, and are thus not being counted right now. We’ll get to those in a minute). He talks and thinks and acts like a teenager; not the sterilised, prettified version of a gay teen we see plenty of in fiction, but so real and raw that I was catapulted back a decade and felt 16 again myself.
And that’s one of the things I really want to talk about – how incredibly immersive this series is. Pick it up, and it won’t let you put it down. I lost entire days to these books, and I don’t want them back. Anyone who’s experienced a book hangover knows what I mean when I say that every time I had to take a break from Vie and his story – to eat, to sleep, to go to work – I felt disorientated and unreal, and all I could think about was getting back to whichever book I was on. I usually can’t stand first-person narration, but Vie – Vie wasn’t even talking to me, okay; he was me, or I was him. I hurt when he hurt and I was happy when he was happy; I pined after the people he did and hated the people he did. I could smell the dust and damp and air freshener, I could feel the breeze and the heat and the tarmac under his feet when he ran. And I can’t dissect for you how Gregory Ashes accomplishes that; I can’t pull apart the way he uses words to figure out how Vie managed to pull me in and keep me. I can only tell you that he does. The outside world just stops existing when you open these pages, in the very best of ways, and I’m genuinely stunned that these books aren’t bestsellers. Every time I mention Hollow Folk to someone, and they don’t know what I’m talking about…guys, these books should be as well-known as Harry Potter. How they’re not is beyond me.
Maybe it’s because they’re too dark for a lot of people. They might be; Vie, whose head we’re in for the entire series, has been viciously abused for years. His scars aren’t just physical (although he has a tragic number of physical ones too). He has serious anger management issues and terrifying self-loathing; his sense of self-worth is somewhere in the minuses. He doesn’t know how to trust. He self-harms. He lies. And that’s only him; that’s not even starting on the things the villains get up to (although to be fair, much of that occurs off-screen and is never described explicitly, for which I’m very grateful). Vie is not a wet blanket, which some people might dismiss him as after the description I just gave; he’s more like a hand-grenade, destructive to the people around him and most of all to himself. He’s not passive, as many heavily depressed people become; he’s active, pre-emptive when he can be. Hollow Folk is very much character-driven plot, not plot-manipulated characters. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here.
But put it all together and I can understand why these books might just not work for some people. Some people will definitely find them triggering. But I am reminded of the Sherman Alexie quote that punched me in the gut when I found it at 16;
‘I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons – in the form of words and ideas – that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.’
I’m 26 now, not 16. But having been physically abused by my own mother – although not, thank all the gods, to the extent Vie was…I won’t say that Vie’s story is cathartic. At least, not for me. But it is true. What Ashes writes, the way he writes it – that is what it’s like. He gets it right, and there is something very important to me about the fact that Vie is the first abuse-victim I’ve ever seen in fiction who is really, genuinely, not nice about it. In more than the ‘occasional sharp tongue’ way, or the ‘shutting down, I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this’ way. Vie does things that are not acceptable and not okay, even though the reader can completely understand why he does them – we know his motivations and thought processes, even if other characters don’t. And I’m sure there are people who will be shrieking at the pages and wishing they could shake him for being so stupid. I ended up in tears, not just because Vie’s situation is heartbreaking – even when he is violent, for example, which, neither the narrative nor the rest of the cast ever suggest is acceptable – but because I got it. I’ve been where he is, and I’ve never seen it captured on page so well.
Vie is not nice about it. A lot of victims are not nice about it. I don’t think most of us get as bad as Vie gets, but a lot of survivors, a lot of people with mental health problems – I’ll get back to that – are not nice about it. Are not easy to live with. It’s painful and difficult not just for survivors, but for the people around them, and damn it, that needs more acknowledgement, we need to talk about that more. The difference between understandable and acceptable behaviour; how behaviour can be unacceptable even when it’s understandable. Hollow Folk nails it, and you know what, we need to talk about male survivors in general a hell of a lot more.
I’m not happy that a character I adore went through hell. (Several characters I care about). But I’m incredibly grateful for the conversation-starter, and the acknowledgement, and the respect and accuracy with which that side of the story is handled. So I understand that it may be too much for some readers. But for some others, it might mean as much as it meant to me.
I finished the last book at one in the morning. I spent a long time awake, thinking about how, when someone finally points out that Vie is clinically depressed – how that was a surprise to me. I was diagnosed years ago and am doing great now, but Vie’s head-state made so much sense to me that I just accepted it, without making the jump to ‘oh, he obviously has depression!’ (I got to, ‘he desperately needs therapy.’ But I didn’t diagnose him until it was literally stated on-page). And I’m not sure I’m putting this into words well, but – that’s how well Ashes nails it. It’s so accurate, it’s so real, that I snapped back into the same head-space with Vie, because it’s indistinguishable from where my own head used to be. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m now having a depressive episode or anything; just that, I remember that being the norm, and I accepted it as the norm again, because I’ve done it before, and Vie’s trauma and scars read just like the real thing.
I don’t have words to acknowledge how much skill that takes, as a writer. I’ve been in no small amount of awe ever since I realised it.
What else can I say? Does the plot really matter, next to all that? There are bad guys – terrible ones. There are mysteries and psychics and full-on comic-book-hero superpowers. The fight scenes are incredible; the story never stumbles or lags; the sweetness (and there are more than a few beautiful, precious moments throughout the series) is almost painful. There are injuries, real ones, not the kind you can magic away. Everything is realistic: how much it hurts, how hard it can be, how much it matters.
A quick word on the ending, including very minor spoilers:
But it was, in the end – however much it hurt – the perfect ending to a perfect series. I don’t think I can say any more than that. These books will stay with me forever, unspeakably precious to me in ways I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully verbalise. If you don’t pick them up, you’re doing yourself an injustice.
Thank you, Gregory Ashes, for these books. You’ve got a fan for life.