I don't think I will be able to articulate clearly how much I LOVE a good psychological thriller. To say that I live for the excitement that comes with watching someone determine whether what they're experiencing is based in reality or fantasy might be a bit of an understatement. Nothing gives me chills like reading about someone who you think is firmly planted in reality, only to have that belief completely turned inside out when you realize everything you've been reading, everything they've been experiencing, has been a delusion, the deepest part of someone's imagination come to life. Welcome to Etienne's Harbinger!
Etienne had me hooked from the first chapter. Faye's waking visions felt so real, and her controlled panic was so heartbreaking - knowing she's tried to keep her fear in check, so as not to seem like she's losing her mind in front of her loved ones - that I couldn't have put Harbinger down even if I had wanted to. As the water started dripping under the windowpane, trickling in through the cracks in the door, consuming her until she couldn't see or hear anything but the "whoosh whoosh whoosh" of the tide, I truly felt like those around her were going to have a sudden moment of clarity, and be able to experience it all with her. Even though Faye was terrified she was losing her mind, a part of me didn't doubt her - I believed she was actually experiencing these waking visions; the way they were written, their vividness and detailedness, was too rich to be mere fantasies.
I think my favourite part about reading a psychological thriller is trying to determine if what's happening is something everyone can see, or something only the protagonist is experiencing. The following scene is one of those delicious moments.
"My hands. My hands were covered in red. Not a bright stop-sign red or an orangey clown red. It was the terrible brown red of blood. The whorls of my fingerprints stood bold against the deep crimson. I'd fallen out of bed before, lots of times, but this? This was new. What's going on?
I looked over at Maya's bed, but she wasn't in it. Instead, she was sprawled, unmoving, on the floor on the other side of the room. The same red smudged and streaked the floor between us.
I stared down at my red hands.
No. I couldn't have. I crawled toward her, trying to make out the rise and fall of her chest. Daring myself to touch her foot. To wake her up. But I couldn't make myself."
So disturbingly creepy, made even more terrifying by the underlying doubt - is this really happening, or is Faye hallucinating again? Harbinger is full of tantalizingly teasing moments like this, adding a layer of suspense to the already all-encompasing mystery that surrounds the strange events that seem to be increasing in frequency. Statues positioned in a circle, frozen in silent screams. A hidden library, hiding a rusty iron talisman. A forgotten diary, bookmarked with ominous tarot cards that held pieces of a prophesy foreshadowing the end of the world.
"But that wasn't what made the entry unsettling. And it wasn't just creepy descriptions either. It was that every word, every line, had been written in blood."
Clues, uncovered by Faye and Kel, all pointing to one person - the Harbinger.
All this mystery and intrigue is fostered by some well thought-out characters. Faye isn't oblivious - she knows something strange is going on, something that involves her specifically, and the ties she feels to Holbrook. She terrified to her core, but she's also determined to figure out exactly what's going on.
"The answers teased at me. Dangerous and exhilarating. Even though I was scared, I needed to understand."
Her relationship with Kel is literally sizzling, as she is jolted with memories every time their fingers touch - but their romance definitely takes a backseat to everything else that's going on around them. Kel is full of his own secrets, and his mysteriousness had me turning the pages in an effort to figure him out. I loved watching Faye's ability to see other people's thoughts strengthen, and her confusion and feelings of betrayal when she sees a secret Kel has been keeping from her only added to my growing need to understand what was happening!
My only real issue with Harbinger was the world-building. Harbinger is set in a futuristic Earth, where oil shortages have led to riots and the formations of different Cooperatives. Each Cooperative has it's own values, and you have to apply to become a member. Being a member of a Cooperative provides you with rations for food, medical supplies, and other necessities. For those unfortunates left to survive on their own, resources are scarce - there's no food, no clean drinking water, and any trees have been cut down to use for fuel. While all of this made sense, I didn't understand why people would bother to allow a facility like Holbrook to exist, with the world in its state of chaos. This might sound terrible - but it seems to be the general consensus in other apocalyptic/dystopian novels - but why would anyone bother to waste precious resources on rehabilitating dysfunctional youth? With the world in a state of turmoil, why waste the time and energy on a bunch of rebellious teens, when those same resources could be used to help foster the Cooperatives that are working towards a solution, or used to bribe more people to join the army in an effort to bolster their numbers and give them a better chance at winning the war? I guess I just didn't see the point.
World-building aside however, I loved Harbinger. The pacing starts off slow, increasing as strange events being happening, and culminating in an explosive finale that dates back thousands of years. The prison-asylumlike boarding school gives the entire setting an ominously shuddersome atmosphere, and the constant reveal of clues builds the suspension until it peaks and cascades into a wholly satisfying conclusion, where all of your questions are answered in an awe-inspiring final scene.