John Hornor Jacobs's 2013 debut YA/horror novel The Twelve Fingered Boy established him as one of the scariest, most lyrical new writers for young people; with the 2014 sequel, The Shibboleth, Jacobs shows that he's got lots more tricks up his sleeve, and each one is scarier and more thrilling than the last. Cory Doctorow just read it and now he's sleeping with the lights on.

As I noted in my review, The Twelve Fingered Boy was an ambitious and beautifully turned horror novel that went beyond the usual limits of literature intended for young readers, plunging two of the most likable protagonists you could hope to meet into some of the scariest jeopardy you're likely to read about.

The first book was claustrophobic, set within the barred confines of a tough children's prison. Book two zooms out, and out, and out, taking the danger and the consequences to a wider and wider group of people, setting up for a third volume in which, I suspect, the future of our planet — or even our reality — may hang in the balance. It beautifully develops the characters through their coming-of-age experiences, walking a line between the easy nihilism of horror ("nothing matters, everything is evil") and the easy platitudes of YA tropes ("all can be saved and redeemed through goodness and preserverence"). It pulls this off very well, and introduces a much wider cast of characters who are never easy to pin down and always feel real.

Jacobs isn't afraid to take YA horror into dark places, and this book has some chilling glimpses into sinister sexuality, violence, and psychological torture — but, amazingly, this stuff is never played for cheap thrills or shocks.


In The Shibboleth, Shreve and Jack have been separated, Jack gone off to some place with the mysterious and sinister Mr Quincrux, leaving Shreve alone in juvie hall where he has become the most loathed figure on the cellblock, facing daily beatings with the complicity of his adult minders.

To make things worse, the whole prison is being plagued by incurable insomnia, everyone sinking into madness. And they all blame Shreve, who has stolen…something…from them, though none can say what. After a psychotic break and an attack on a prison nurse, Shreve is taken to a mental institution, where he discovers that the plague of sleeplessness has spread across the country, sparking disasters like nuclear meltdowns and plane-crashes.

In the psych ward, Shreve conspires with an anorexic girl to help escape from his chemical straightjacket, and manages to recover his mental powers and escapes, finding his way to New York, where he finds an old friend who hears his story and vows to help him, but at the last moment, Shreve is captured by Quincrux's agents, and rendered to a secret compound where, for generations, the US government has been secretly raising an army of psychic soldiers, and where he is to be inducted — but first they have to break his will.

Jacobs is a master of racheting up the tension and never offering release. I ended up finishing the last two chapters standing opposite an airport security checkpoint because I couldn't stand the thought of getting to the front of the line and being interrupted before I could finish it.

The Shibboleth

-Cory Doctorow