Book Review : Stephen Williams - Among the Ruins (2015)
If you thought until today that Among the Ruins was the name of a metalcore band, you're probably not the only one. The debut novel of little known California-based author Stephen Williams didn't exactly break BookScan when it was released by Villipede Publications in 2015. That means the novel didn't find its audience and eventually capsized into publishing oblivion. It's a tragedy, but it unfortunately happens all the fucking time. I try to keep my diet of debut authors leans and mean myself because no one reads the reviews, to be quite frank. Stephen Williams submitted Among the Ruins for review an obscenely long time ago and since he managed to remain so fucking nice and normal in the process, I figured I'd give it a shot.
Sometimes the good guy wins, beautiful people.
The premise of Among the Ruins might seem cliché at first glance, but it unfolds in a peculiar and surprisingly nuanced way. Our first protagonist Ryan is looking for an easy score after knocking up his girlfriend Madison, so he turns to his best friend Nate and two knucklehead brothers named Schafer and Wesley who plan to kidnap a rich high school kid for ransom. Our second protagonist is the victim himself Edric Samuels, a decent kid who's understandably freaking out about the situation and forces his captor to pacify him with drugs and violence. The more they slap Edric and pump him with drugs, the deeper he sinks into a netherworld where his demons seem to take a particular interest into his survival. While his captors are busy turning against one another outside, Edric is turning himself inside out and become someone else.
I did not expect to like Stephen Williams' Among the Ruins as much as I did. There an unlikely theme of fantasy going on in this novel that makes it better than it should've been: Ryan is entertaining the fantasy he can settle his wife-to-be and child's life with one job and never take his responsibility again, Nate and the others are young boys living out a tough guy fantasy and, most important, Edric is experiencing a phantasmagoria where the images created by his own trauma and resentment are taking a life of their own and altering his sense of reality. Bizarrely enough, it's the bleak reality of the situation that seeps in and corrupts everyone's convenient fantasies. So, THAT was cool.
Fantasy is also what differentiates Among the Ruins from your typical shit-kicking kidnapping novel. The kidnappers here aren't your two-bits criminal losers who you're supposed to connect with because of the romantic idea they're supposed to represent (trying to "beat" the system), Stephen Williams' kidnappers are already in love with what they're doing. This changes the entire dynamic of Among the Ruins. The young kidnappers wield dangerous automatic weapons * without really knowing what they're doing, yet it makes them look and feel strong and in command. There's a constant gap between the grim reality and how the kidnappers feel about it, which Williams constantly exploited. That alone kept the novel above any clichés of kidnapping narratives.
Among the Ruins is a debut novel, which means there obviously were some flaws. It's a very fast paced, dialogue-driven book and it goes overboard sometimes with the in-dialogue exposition. Ryan tells Nate early in the novel "Nate, we've been best friends since we were kids," or at some point late in the novel, Edric's dream demon Asclepius tells him he's molding him for his own purposes. No shit, Sherlock. You've been molding him for your own purposes for over a hundred pages already. No need to clarify that. There are clumsy passages here and there that should've been left out of dialogue, but it never undermines the greater picture. It was a bit of a thorn in the foot, but I've read debut novels that laid a LOT heavier into unnecessary exposition. Stephen Williams has an ear for dialogue and a sense of rhythm, he just needs to keep his cards closer to his chest.
The mysteriously wrapped Among the Ruins turned out to be a lot of fun. It's not a perfect novel, but it's vibrant and alive in its flaws and eccentricities. As far as debut novels are concerned, this is a very strong showing from Stephen Williams. He can remain compelling while thinking outside the box, which is all I demand from debut novelists, really. To either show they can do something well or do something new and engaging and Williams did the latter with Among the Ruins. My word is as good as anybody's when it comes to debut novels, so please don't hesitate to check this one out for yourself, the eBook is dirt cheap on Amazon. It's time to put Stephen Williams on our collective radar because Among the Ruins shows tons of promise.
* An AK-47 and a Mossberg semi-automatic shotgun among others. Williams NAMED them, which I thought foreshadowed how bad the boys were out of their depth.