No, this is not a story about my beloved hometown going up in flames. Atlanta Burns is the title character of a new young adult series of books from author Chuck Wendig.
Well, it’s not technically new. The first book in the series is split into two parts: The previously published novella, Shotgun Gravy followed by the previously published short novel, Bait Dog. Both stories have been revised and combined into one book (with one heck of a cool cover) that went on sale this week.
Is it good?
Atlanta Burns (Skyscape)
Shotgun Gravy serves as the reader’s introduction to Atlanta Burns, but it’s hardly her origin story. The poor girl has been through some pretty terrible stuff, namely a series of sexual assaults by her mother’s now former and de-testicled boyfriend—the predatory sicko lost his junk when Atlanta blew it off with a shotgun.
In addition to saddling her with a mountain of emotional trauma, the experience also gives Atlanta a strangely ambiguous notoriety at her school. Most people (rightly) feel she was justified in her actions, but it causes many others to be dismissive or even downright fearful of her.
Atlanta uses this unwanted aura to help protect a couple of students who are being bullied for having the audacity to not be non-white and gay. What starts out as an afterschool special situation spiked with Adderall and a bit of light torture quickly escalates, sending Atlanta on the path to discover that the evil in her town is much darker and deeply imbedded than she’d first imagined.
Bait Dog continues the story with the heartbreaking death of one of Atlanta’s new (and few) friends. The police rule it a suicide, but her recent experiences tell her that foul play had to be involved. As if that weren’t bad enough, someone is kidnapping and torturing people’s dogs…and her run in with the town’s white supremacist element has made one former pet owner come to Atlanta for help. After reluctantly agreeing to take the case/enact revenge, her investigation reveals something even worse than well-connected and respected neo Nazis…along with a proving her an unexpected (and adorable) new ally.
Atlanta Burns: From A Sour First Impression to My Fictional Hero
If you’ve talked to me for more than ten seconds about books, then you know that Chuck Wendig is my #1 man crush. His stories, his style of writing, and the characters he creates are my absolute favorite from any author I’ve ever read.
So it surprised me when after reading Shotgun Gravy, I wasn’t blown away. It was definitely well-written, but I just couldn’t connect with Atlanta Burns. This wasn’t a male-female thing—Miriam Black from Wendig’s Blackbirds series is my favorite of the many characters he’s created. I thought it might be because this was the first story of his I’d read that didn’t have any sort of speculative element, but that didn’t really add up (and would soon be disproven).
I’m still at a bit of a loss for why I didn’t take to Atlanta at first. I think it may have been because she initially seemed like a ball of coiled rage. Even her human moments were tinged with a darkness that was hard to connect with. The people she was trying to help and who were trying to befriend her seemed to be hitting a razor sharp exterior of pain, distancing herself from any chance of personal connection…
…but again, I bring up Miriam Black, who is all this times ten and I still loved her from the very start.
Whatever the case, though, Shotgun Gravy just didn’t grab me like I’d hoped. It was almost enough to make me consider skipping Bait Dog, which I soon learned would have been a colossal mistake.
Maybe it’s because at the start of Bait Dog, Atlanta had finally allowed some people to fully integrating into her life. This gave her a much better palette of interactions to play off of besides confrontation and rejection.
Or perhaps it was because the terrible tragedy at the start of the book helped reveal a bit more of her heart as it broke and spilled onto the page.
After thinking about it for a good long while, though, I’m still not sure what made things click for me. But click it did, because the Atlanta Burns I read in Bait Dog grabbed a hold of my heart and never let go.
Not only was the girl a bona fide badass, but she is so damn believable it hurts. Case in point: My description of the battles she faces in her home town (anti-gay bullies, white supremacists, etc.) are more than enough to make an anti-Social Justice Warrior type roll his eyes and go back to watching DVRed episodes of The Pickup Artist.
But here’s the thing: Atlanta is kind of an asshole…and sometimes she’s even a little prejudice. Not overtly racist, mind you, but she still has some of those accidental thoughts and assumptions that white privilege (which is still present even in her poverty-stricken existence) can cause.
She recognizes it, too, often hilariously and with a well measured amount of self-awareness. And as long as we’re on this topic, here’s some more food for thought:
I’ve seen a proclamation being made by MRA types that basically says ‘All the best characters in fiction are white males because that’s the only group of people you can give tragic flaws to without being called racist/misogynistic.’ Well, much like the balls of her mother’s ex, Atlanta Burns blows that perception to smithereens.
She is impulsive, callous, and a prescription drug addict (Adderall). And remember how I called her a ‘badass’ earlier? Well, that may be true with regards to who she is, but it doesn’t always translate into how she acts and reacts. Atlanta often charges into situations without a plan or the means to overcome her current obstacle. Sometimes she still comes out on top, other times she gets her ass handed right back to her. Fortunately, she’s got a seemingly bottomless well of perseverance, grit, and a stubborn streak that shades just shy of obsessive.
It’s also worth noting that much of Atlanta’s surly demeanor cannot be solely admitted to the sexual assault she suffered. It definitely altered her, but it’s pretty clear that this girl wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows before.
Hooked by the Bait (Dog)
As a human being, I should arguably be more horrified by my people experiencing the horrors of bullying, racism, sexual assault, and suicide than I am about dogs being tortured and killed.
But as a dog lover, the stuff that goes on in those dog fighting rings (which Wendig really did his research on) tears me up. He never gets too gratuitous with the gore and violence, but he doesn’t skimp on it either. It’s raw and painful, but stops just short of making you want to shut down from the narrative. Instead, it gets you good and pissed at how anyone could do something so horrible to these wonderful creatures.
Pictured: The only form of dog torture my wife and I will tolerate in our home.
To make matters worse (and effectively better), one of the main ‘characters’ in Bait Dog is an actual dog. Not a dog that can talk or has quasi-magic sensory perception, but an awesome, lovable, really cool dog…and Wendig writes the little guy perfectly.
This helps to make Atlanta’s mission to shut down the dog fighting ring that much easier to root for. Not only does this dog make you love him, but he breaks down the wall around Atlanta’s heart like no person ever could.
Add in Wendig’s usual knack for giving us an ending that is simultaneously open-ended and completely satisfying, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a great story.
Who’s Choppin’ Onions?
Full Disclosure: It hasn’t been a great last couple weeks. Two people I care about a great deal had family members murdered. Both cases were gruesome enough to end up being national news.
So maybe I was a little unhinged already when tears began dropping from my face onto my iPad screen, but I can’t remember the last time a book made me genuinely cry. Then along comes Bait Dog and I’m a mess. This wasn’t just a case of me tearing up or getting misty-eyed. It was like the book reached up and yanked the moisture from my face like to take a shower.
…and by the way, I bet a lot of you think you know what happens in the book now because of the subject matter and my subsequent reaction. Trust me, you don’t.
Is This Really Young Adult Fiction?
No matter what anyone tells you, it is totally fine for adults to read, enjoy, and be moved by young adult fiction. Just because it belongs to that genre doesn’t meant its themes and narratives are automatically stunted compared to work written specifically for adults. Great literature is great literature. Period.
That being said, there seems to be an issue with Mr. Wendig’s classifying Atlanta Burns as YA fiction. While the age of the characters is definitely in that range, the book also has teenagers drinking, using drugs illegally, dropping numerous f-bombs, and a few other things that you don’t typically find in a novel marketed to teens.
I can honestly understand an issue like this. A friend of mine once showed me a YA novel being read in her child’s high school English class. It had one of the most graphic sex scenes I’ve ever read—it made the nasty stuff in the Song of Ice and Fire series seem quaint. With that sort of thing, I can understand there being a classification/marketing issue.
That’s not the issue with Atlanta Burns, though. Wendig isn’t trying to glorify the book’s R-rated aspects just to titillate the reader. In fact, the drug abuse ends up having some pretty negative consequence. And all of those things are very real parts of the teenage experience, whether the kids are partaking in it or are just friends with ones who do. I teach middle school, and I can assure you that even there, the language and (sadly) the substance abuse can and does happen. In high school in college, it happens enough to make the characters in Atlanta Burns often seem toned down by comparison.
But you know what issues affect all teens more than most adults realize? Bullying, bigotry, sexual assault, and class warfare—all of which Atlanta takes on through a damaged, angst-filled lens while still managing to be wise beyond her years.
So whether you are willing and ready to deal with it or not, Atlanta Burns isn’t just young adult fiction. It’s young adult reality.
If you’re any good at the maths, then you’ve probably noticed that my 9/10 rating doesn’t add up. If I rated Shotgun Gravy 7/10 and Bait Dog 10/10, then the whole thing should average out to 8.5.
Here’s the problem—Bait Dog is so freaking good that it deserves more than a 10/10. Despite my usual affinity for speculative fiction, the story of this red-haired warrior taking on real world horrors was a pure joy to read. Miriam Black is still my favorite character in the Wendigverse, but poor Mookie Pearl may have just slipped from two to three.
Keeping giving ‘em hell, Atlanta.
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