Review: ‘Atlanta Burns’ by Chuck Wendig

atlanta-burns-cover

You don’t mess with Atlanta Burns.

Everyone knows that. And that’s kinda how she likes it — until the day Atlanta is drawn into a battle against two groups of bullies and saves a pair of new, unexpected friends. But actions have consequences, and when another teen turns up dead — by an apparent suicide — Atlanta knows foul play is involved. And worse: she knows it’s her fault.

You go poking rattlesnakes, maybe you get bit.

Afraid of stirring up the snakes further by investigating, Atlanta turns her focus to the killing of a neighborhood dog. All paths lead to a rural dogfighting ring, and once more Atlanta finds herself face-to-face with bullies of the worst sort. Atlanta cannot abide letting bad men do awful things to those who don’t deserve it. So she sets out to unleash her own brand of teenage justice.

Will Atlanta triumph? Or is fighting back just asking for a face full of bad news?

Atlanta Burns is a kind of YA contemporary that is dark — so dark that the world in which the titular character exists is almost a caricature of itself. I’ve seen the book described as noir, which is something I usually associate with detectives in oversized coats, but that works here in the sense that Atlanta’s world is bleak. Almost everyone is corrupt, incompetent, or outright evil. The handful of characters that aren’t evil are damaged as a result of being the victims of those who are. These include Atlanta (mostly) and the two boys she befriends at school, Shane and Chris.

It’s a tough read. One I enjoyed, but at the same time — oof.

Firstly, if you are triggered by any of the following, this isn’t the book for you: rape, child abuse, torture, suicide, animal harm, homophobia and violent racism. 

Also, if swearing and drug use bother you, again, maybe don’t go here.

(I told you it was dark.)

Atlanta is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse — a situation she extricated herself from by buying herself a secondhand gun and shooting the perpetrator. She was then sent away to therapy for either six months or a year (my copy of the book says both — oops). The story opens up two weeks after she comes home to a mother that seems to be terrified of her and former best friends who don’t even want to make eye contact.

Atlanta suffers PTSD and panic attacks, but her particular coping mechanism whenever she’s bullied, or sees anyone else being bullied, is to confront the bully with extreme prejudice, cans of mace and her trusty shotgun — generally without thinking anything through in advance. She’s quite fragile beneath the bluster, and afterwards she suffers, but in a crisis she is as hard as nails. Maybe this reaction is a result of the same personality trait that made her buy the gun in the first place, or maybe it’s a result of therapy gone awry. It’s unclear.

Of course, given the world Atlanta lives in, there’s no shortage of opportunities for her to leap in and make things worse. Which, given her fire and lack of planning, she generally does.

In many ways, Atlanta Burns was a satisfying read. As a reader, nothing frustrates me more than when I see a character that is sufficiently evil get away with their evilness. And I’ve learned I’m kinda sorta bloodthirsty (as a reader, honest!), in that I love to see the bad guy get comeuppance at the hands of the good guy. Atlanta’s lack of impulse control and readiness to resort to violence meant I saw all sorts of bad guys get hurt. It was very satisfying!

Where it got a little unrealistic was when the bad guys didn’t seem to strike back as hard as I thought they would or should given their other behaviour. Atlanta does quite a few things to goad people without actually killing them, and their reactions don’t seem to match up to their apparent level of evilness.

The other thing that bothered me was that I kept trying to apply my understanding of the real world to the situation, and Atlanta’s world clearly wasn’t like mine. In the world of this story, the police can’t be trusted and the only adult in her life is her useless, timid mother. The teachers are largely non-entities. I realise that Atlanta going all vigilante defender of the weak does require a corrupt setting (in the same way that Batman needs his Gotham City) but at times I did raise an eyebrow at her thinking she had no other alternative but violence.

At least, I sincerely hope that there aren’t really places like the town where Atlanta lives in the world. 😦

Atlanta Burns is a hard read, but I loved Atlanta as a character. I’m sure I’ll go back for the next book, but I couldn’t read the sequel back-to-back. I need something a bit lighter to cleanse my psyche first!

atlantaburnskatniss

Four stars

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