Cruel Summer by Wesley Southard was a fun read. I have a soft spot for water-based horror since I’m personally terrified of the ocean, and this had all the watery creepy-crawlies you could shake a stick at, from enraged manatees to swordfish impaling people on boats to eels in bathtubs. Cruel Summer starts off right away with a character you love to hate in the form of Hoyt, the abusive boyfriend of Melissa, and the abusive potential step-father of her son, Patrick.
I was rooting for something terrible to happen to this man from the first page. I was not disappointed.
In short order, Melissa and her son kill Hoyt in self-defense and throw his body over the side of their boat, where he meets an ancient evil, to whom he trades his body for a chance to get back at his ex and her son. His hate in exchange for his life, so to speak. He comes back with a vengeance, and the book culminates with a showdown between ancient powers and the people who don’t know how to wield them.
All of this is excellent and very well done, and super exciting. Ancient gods! Mythology! Sea Monsters! The novel, however, gets bogged down with everything that isn’t about the ancient evil and creepy evil sea critters. Most of the book is about Melissa and her ex, Jordan, Patrick’s father, and the family drama that comes out of that little reveal. The main monster of the novel stays mostly out of sight (and out of mind) as it takes backstage to the much larger plot of family drama that comprises most of the novel. The family drama is very well done, and it makes me care very deeply about the characters, but is so ubiquitous that the horror elements make up a much smaller percentage of screen time.
Melissa, as a character, is another aspect of the novel that falls a little flat for me, if only because I know very little about her except how she’s defined by all the men in her life. She is defined by her relationship with Hoyt, her love for her son, and her rekindling romance with Jordan. I know very little about her, about what she wants for herself. Who is Melissa without a man around to tell her who she is and what she wants?
My final, minor gripe is in regards to the mythology aspect of the novel, which feels a little shoehorned in. The final scene’s mechanism seems to be based on one prior conversation. It came out of nowhere and felt like a deus ex machina to me.
Final thoughts – I thought that this was a solid book, and despite my criticisms, I absolutely had fun reading it. It was a better drama than a horror novel, but that said, the horror elements were on point. The characters were all well written and realistic. I wish that Hoyt/Cetus had a better comeuppance, I wish Melissa knew better than to break up with her abusive boyfriend on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and I wish Melissa was a better-developed character in general, but I enjoyed it, and can recommend it to anyone who likes reading about mythology, ocean horror, and screwed up parenting.
You can get Cruel Summer by Wesley Southard, from Death’s Head Press here.
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