Book review: Rocks Fall Everyone Dies, by Lindsay Ribar

Disclosure: The review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

A small town in upstate New York lives under the shadow of a massive cliff that threatens to collapse and crush the township — but fortunately, the Quick family has been there for centuries to protect the residents with an arcane magical ritual. That ritual comes at a cost, though, and Aspen Quick is about to find out how deep that cost runs in Rocks Fall Everyone Dieswhich is a tight, fun paranormal thriller that also comes with a hard edge. It makes for a good read, and like the best of reads, it leaves you asking some questions when you’ve turned the last page.

Aspen is dragged up to the family home for the summer, but he’s brought two friends in tow. He’s balancing fun with his friends with his family obligations, as whenever his grandmother identifies a fault in the rock that threatens the town, they need to gather for a ritual to repair it. The energy for that magic comes from what the family calls ‘reaching,’ probing deep into the people around them to remove emotions — like a fear of boating or a competitive streak. The family justifies the practice on the grounds that it’s for the good of the town, and they claim to have rules, including never stealing from family, but it turns out that things are more complicated than that.

For the Quicks, there’s a sense of superiority, as they believe that the ordinary people around them are inferior. They use their magic to conceal parts of their presence, to erase questions, even to control the people around them, and Aspen gets sucked into the family tradition of manipulating and abusing their power to get what they want. As he starts to tumble down a slippery slope with the justification that he’s just protecting himself and his family, he starts to learn the truth about his family — and the cliff — and he’s forced to make some difficult decisions.

The language and pacing in Rocks Fall Everyone Dies are crisp and engaging, pulling you along through the story even as you sometimes feel a little conflicted and perturbed by what they characters are doing. Aspen isn’t an easy character to like in many ways, and he carries a strong whiff of the Nice Guy(TM) until you realise that he’s anything but — but that he’s also been manipulated by his family. Is he at fault for not fully understanding the depth of his family’s control over him, and the town? How do we hold people accountable for things they didn’t even understand as they were happening?

Fans of Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy are probably going to dig this book, as the two have a lot in common, in the best of ways — they play with similar themes, though they explore them in different ways and through very distinctive characters. Both, however, present the ideas of a town that is theoretically dependent on magic to survive, in something acknowledged but never spoken aloud by the residents. They also probe into what happens when people start to understand the extent of that magic and how it works, asking questions and bringing the thing no one talks about into the daylight.

Like Rees Brennan, Ribar is crisp and funny, and she sneaks lots of social commentary into Rocks Fall Everyone Dies without being annoying and clunky about it. While her characters may not quite carry the mix of insouciant, arrogant sharpness as Rees Brennan’s, they’re definitely distinctive, albeit in different ways. Aspen has spent his whole life confident in the notion that he knows everything he needs to know, and equally confident that he’s assigning blame for the bad things that have happened in his life to the right people. This is the summer when he learns that he’s off-base, and he struggles with it.

One thing Rocks Fall Everyone Dies explores in really fascinating detail is emotion, particularly with respect to emotions that society considers acceptable for men and boys. In a world where people can pull emotions from one another, the inevitable question of what the Quicks are going to ‘reach’ for comes up, and so does the question of what kinds of emotions they may take from each other ‘for their own good,’ despite the family rules. Ribar cuts to the quick of questions about toxic masculinity and a culture where men are supposed to be tough, silent, and immovable, asking why we hold men up to the emotional standards that we do even as she challenges masculine behaviours.

As a straight read, Rocks Fall Everyone Dies is pretty fun, and it’s the kind of thing you’d settle down with in the hammock or on the beach. But it’s also a book that asks some fascinating and important questions, and these linger, making me think about culture and society. It’s the mark of a good author that this is very much not a book that repeatedly hammers people with these questions, but just sort of quietly leaves the door ajar so the reader can nudge it open to look inside. You can take Rocks Fall Everyone Dies at face value if you want, but you’d be missing out.

Image: Danger Cliff Edge, Tom Parnell, Flickr