Book Review: Melissa Albert's 'The Bad Ones' is a gripping story of friendship and the supernatural

Four people have disappeared in a single night, and Nora’s best friend, Becca, is one of them. If they weren’t three months into a huge fight, maybe Nora would be able to parse out the clues Becca left for her.

Melissa Albert’s fifth young adult novel, “The Bad Ones,” is both chilling and heart-warming — a story of limitless friendship clashing with fantastical supernatural power in the cold winter of a little Illinois town.

On the surface, Palmetto is the kind of unremarkable place that 17-year-olds Becca and Nora dream of leaving. But if you dig a little deeper, you find a recurring pattern of strange disappearances, seemingly centered around the high school and dating back to the 1960s. The locals all know some version of the story, and that it birthed the “goddess game” that has been passed down through generations since.

There are two iterations of this game, both Palmetto exclusives: a schoolyard jump-rope rhyme, and a trust-fall-style game of teenage daredevilry.

But Nora and Becca have their own connection with this supernatural side of Midwestern suburbia: a secret art series in which they’ve crafted dozens of goddesses. Nora, lifelong storyteller and the main narrator of the novel, researches mythos to create their lore. Becca fluently wields her camera to illustrate each goddess’ beauty and power.

The project started as a more grown-up way to carry on their childhood make-believe, but perhaps the Goddess Series holds as much power as Becca hoped and Nora feared.

Nora follows Becca’s clues like breadcrumbs around Palmetto, gathering stories shared by a population so realistically rendered that it’s sometimes tough to remember it’s fiction. Strange things are happening to Nora, including hyper-realistic dreams and an insatiable sweet tooth, ramping up the urgency until we finally learn the truth behind the town lore — and what really happened to the four who went missing without a trace — in a satisfying, epic whirlwind of an ending.

The novel is freckled with alluring metaphors and the kind of grand revelations that flow through a perceptive, open mind. Albert’s ethereal descriptions capture specific vibes as well as big-picture issues; the thickness of the air or the haunted way everything in the art wing of the old school seems slightly askew.

Albert’s talent for YA fiction is magical and undeniable. I was sucked right into “The Bad Ones” from the start, and on the edge of my seat until the end.


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