Let’s start with the basics. Rage, by Jackie Morse Kessler, is an amazing book. I enjoyed it so much that it’s already a strong contender to be one of my top ten books of the year. Rage is the second book in a series, where each book focuses on one of the four horsemen (or, rather, horsepeople) of the apocalypse, as manifested by different teenagers. Luckily, while this background knowledge is helpful, it isn’t necessary in order to enjoy Rage on its own.
Rage is about Melissa Miller, or Missy as she’s usually called. Missy suffers from depression and anxiety. These feelings often overwhelm her to the point where she has to constantly focus on staying in control of her emotions, only showing a stoic face to the outer world. The only relief she gets is when she uses a razor to cut herself.
The supernatural twist comes when Death literally arrives at her doorstep. He tells Missy that she is now the living incarnation of War: a rider of the apocalypse. Refreshingly, there’s very little of the usual “What! But magic/ghosts/demon horses can’t be real!” Instead Missy is just scared out of her mind and decides not to think about the whole thing for a while.
Unfortunately for Missy, after one truly nightmarish party, embracing the powers of War seems to be the only thing she can turn to. She’s a girl full of rage: rage at herself, her selfish sister, her cruel classmates, and the ex-boyfriend who heartlessly betrayed her. Everything inside her makes her want to strike out in anger, to the point where even Missy herself is scared.
The greatest strength of Rage is its tone. Many authors try to portray the pain of teenagers but with narrative distance that can make that pain look excessively dramatic and angsty. In Rage, the metaphorical becomes beautifully literal. Missy doesn’t just feel like anger is radiating from her. It actually is. Suddenly she isn’t simply trying to control her emotions for the sake of her self-esteem or well-being. Instead, if Missy were truly reckless in letting her feelings loose, it could literally lead to the end of the world.
In Rage, Famine, War, Pestilence, and Death are still harbingers of the apocalypse, but with an interesting twist. Killing, destroying, and ending the world are things all the riders are capable of, but not options that they have to choose. Over the course of the book Missy learns that she can easily cause anyone to be angry, to be looking for a fight. What’s harder is using her powers for good. She also has the ability to make wars stop, if only for a day. She can use her experience from bottling up her emotions to take in and cut through the pain and anger of armies.
Missy’s journey to become War is powerful because the magical consequences of it make her internal struggles feel that much more real. The epic stakes are the perfect illustration of how Missy’s depression has always made her feel. Inside, she has always felt like the world hinged on her composure—and now it does.
Personally, I loved this book’s portrayal of Missy’s depression. One of the things that makes it such a difficult illness to live with is the way it’s a difficult illness to believe in. Even if you are the one suffering from it, sometimes it’s easier to say “I’m just sad a lot,” “I just have a bad life,” or even “I’m just pathetic.” Because depression feels like it should have a simple emotional root. So you focus on little causes: a mean classmate, a disappointing date, an embarrassing mistake. But they never add up to enough to make sense of the pain depression gives you. And with that comes a sense of shame and judgment.
It’s easy to feel pathetic because you’re in so much pain for seemingly tiny reasons. Rage takes away that barrier. Missy has depression before she becomes War, but after that plot begins any discussion of her internal conflicts becomes impossible to trivialize. It made me feel safe to identify with her. Her pain was real and that helped me accept that my pain is real.
One thing that should definitely be addressed is that Missy cuts herself. If that is a trigger for you, you may want to give Rage a pass. It’s a subject that’s one of the central plotlines of the story. Throughout the book Missy has a very complicated relationship with her razor blade.
On the one hand, she often thinks of it almost lovingly, as a secret tool that can always ease her pain. On the other hand, Missy recognizes from the beginning of the story that cutting is unhealthy and dangerous. She wants to break away from it and prove to herself and the world that she doesn’t need her razor. Her whirlwind of emotions as she tries to fight the urge to cut make up some of the best scenes of the book. This passage is a wonderful example:
Erica frowned. “So why do you cut?”
She’s trying, Missy thought. Erica was trying to understand. Missy fumbled, searching for the right words. “When I cut, I’m the one controlling the pain. I know where it’s coming from. I know that it’s me who’s doing it, me and no one else.” God she felt stupid. She wasn’t explaining it right. She sounded like an idiot. “It’s better than the other pain. […] The one in my chest,” Missy said softly, but gripping the pillow tight tight tight. “The one that crushes everything else. The one that makes it impossible to breathe,” (Rage p. 138-9).
There are a few other potential trigger warnings that should be addressed: bullying and suicide. To be clear, no one kills themselves, but Missy does come close a few times to doing it by accident when she cuts herself. Both times she is saved by magic. The bullying is more prominent and is absolutely vicious.
Missy’s classmate repeatedly show themselves to be creatively cruel and heartless. It’s easy to understand why Missy would feel violent urges against them. At the same time, the writing is clever enough to make a reader still cheer when Missy doesn’t give to those urges.
I won’t give away the book’s ending, but it is as satisfying as the rest of it. The ending left me with a sense of peace, knowing that Missy’s life still wasn’t perfect, but that she was going to be okay. Better than that, she was going to be happy, despite the strange new powers in her life. I also want to note that Rage is one of the few stories I’ve read where a character with depression actually gets professional help that is helpful by the end (though only in the epilogue).
Overall, I highly recommend Rage for anyone with depression, who wants to learn about depression, or anyone who just enjoys a good story. It’s moving, it’s clever, and despite its fantasy elements it’s incredibly realistic. Give it a shot and maybe, like me, you’ll immediately want to get the rest of the series.