Book Review: The John Cleaver Trilogy
Dan Wells is a commentator on the wonderful Writing Excuses podcast and he always has great advice on the series. I had read a few Brandon Sanderson books because of the series and I also started Wells’ John Cleaver trilogy. I’m not someone who reads horror, in fact the only example I can think of is At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. I don’t like being scared, even if that makes me a wimp. Still, I wanted to support the writers on the show and Wells writes horror. I just finished the third book and it’s time to review the John Cleaver series!
I Am Not a Serial Killer
John Cleaver is a fifteen year old sociopath who doesn’t want to become a serial killer, but knows he’s on the wrong path. He has rules in place that keep him from giving in to tendencies that would lead him down a killer’s path. He tries his best to not hate his family, avoid girls and finds himself most at home embalming corpses in his family’s mortuary.
But then a serial killer shows up in town and starts leaving victims around. John decides he needs to find and take down the killer before more people die, but that means breaking his rules. Not only that, but the reveal of the killer hits a little too close to home and is surprise for both John and the reader. Soon, it becomes a game of cat and mouse, with John trying to catch the killer without releasing his own inner demons.
This is the first book of the series and it creeped me out. I read this book while home alone and that night I was convinced there was someone in the kitchen ready to kill me. Despite that, I finished the book. It was incredibly hard to put down and I was surprised how much I wanted to keep coming back. Once the killer has been revealed, the book takes on a different feel but never stops being scary. John is likable and pitiful. You want to see him cut loose but you hate how detached he is from everyone else. His interactions with girls are sad, but more of that comes in the second book. As the first of a trilogy, this book does a great job introducing us to the world and characters, as well as the threats. As a standalone, it’s the best in the series, easily the most focused. Even if you don’t have an interest in the rest of the series, you should check this book out.
The sequel takes place right after the events of the first book and kicks into high gear right away. A new killer is in town, with a connection to the previous one. John is on the hunt again, only his battle with his own monsters is going worse. In the process of the first book, John broke too many rules and is finding that it’s harder to close a door once it’s already open. The part of him that wants to kill and feel connected through death is louder than before and going by the name of Mr. Monster. The more John hunts for the killer, the harder it is to control himself.
He’s also dealing with more problems at home and with girls. His high school crush starts showing interest in him and John has no idea how to deal with that. The dates are cute but being a John Cleaver book, good things never last. When things get dark and John finds the killer’s identity, the book gets intense and hopeless. The killer is more twisted than the first book and the damage he does to John isn’t so easily repaired.
It should be considered a compliment that a month after reading the first book, I had moved onto the next. I read Mr. Monster in two days, making sure I had it done before school went into full gear. This book is the darkest of the series, especially when the killer is revealed. John’s battle to contain Mr. Monster is always frightening, but the scene with cat is the most disturbing and had my heart pounding. The more you learn about John, the more you both respect and fear him. You see his choices and wish there was another way, even though he tends to sacrifice his own happiness for others. I was glad to read this in a dorm room rather than an empty house. Easy to pick up after the first book, it even works as a standalone. It’s the dark aftermath of book one.
I Don't Want to Kill You
Now that John has dealt with two serial killers, you'd think he would be prepared for anything. That is, until two show up in his town at the same time. John’s working double time in this book, all while dealing with a new girlfriend and the results of the second book. His family life is going better than before, but his relationship with his mother is strained at best. She’s fully aware of his problem and trying to help him through it, but it seems to only push him away.
As for John’s new girl, it’s easy to see why he falls for her as fast as he does. She sees more in him than he’s willing to admit and you want to see him accept her into his life. However, he’s still trying to take care of the serial killers and that keeps him in a dark place. The third book ties the series to a close while still remaining open ended. It’s the least focused of the series and doesn’t standalone well, but if you’ve made it this far, you’ll want to read the last book of the John Cleaver series.
It took me a while to read this book. I attempted to read it sooner, but school got in the way and then I forgot about it. I finally got around to it and was glad to have made time for the last of trilogy. The ending comes about quicker than I expected and the big emotional moment between John and his mother doesn’t seem earned. In the view of the series, maybe; but not in the view of this book. The other problem is that, as the last of trilogy, this is technically act three of the series and it’s not a good idea to introduce important characters in the third act. John’s new girlfriend has a powerful effect on his life, but she needed more time in the other books to really hit the way she needed to. Still, I was satisfied with the close of the series and would even keep reading the series if Wells decided to continue it.
If you haven’t read this series or even one of the books, you should give it a try. If you’re worried you won’t like the books because of the horror, don’t worry. They get scary and they might keep you up for a night, but the main focus is on John as character; as fifteen year old boy trying to become someone he’s okay being. Wells is a great writer and does an excellent job with his debut book and series. I’ll definitely be checking out his other books, The Hollow City and the Partials series. I hope you give this trilogy a look.