I requested a copy of “Kens” by Raziel Reid from Penguin Random House after reading the description. It sounded like a very curious book, and I am grateful to the publisher for providing me with a free copy for review.
Heterosexuality is so last season: Kens is the gay Heathers meets Mean Girls, a shocking parody for a whole new generation.
Every high school has the archetypical Queen B and her minions. In Kens, the high school hierarchy has been reimagined. Willows High is led by Ken Hilton, and he makes Regina George from Mean Girls look like a saint. Ken Hilton rules Willows High with his carbon-copies, Ken Roberts and Ken Carson, standing next to his throne. It can be hard to tell the Kens apart. There are minor differences in each edition, but all Kens are created from the same mold, straight out of Satan's doll factory. Soul sold separately.
Tommy Rawlins can't help but compare himself to these shimmering images of perfection that glide through the halls. He's desperate to fit in, but in a school where the Kens are queens who are treated like Queens, Tommy is the uncool gay kid. A once-in-a-lifetime chance at becoming a Ken changes everything for Tommy, just as his eye is caught by the tall, dark, handsome new boy, Blaine. Has Blaine arrived in time to save him from the Kens? Tommy has high hopes for their future together, but when their shared desire to overthrow Ken Hilton takes a shocking turn, Tommy must decide how willing he is to reinvent himself -- inside and out. Is this new version of Tommy everything he's always wanted to be, or has he become an unknowing and submissive puppet in a sadistic plan?
That synopsis of “Kens” is the only part of the book that is coherent and crystal clear. (That, and the acknowledgements.)
From the very first page, I felt overwhelmed. It took me a moment to get used to the writing style, and I kept referring back to the dictionary at the very beginning of the book (and occasionally - not gonna lie - turning to Urban Dictionary) and the descriptions of three Kens.
This book should come with a range of trigger warnings. Basically, warning for everything. The author does not pull any punches. It is dark humour and satire, and, dear lord, he does deliver it. Even “Kens” is a fairly short novel - and rightfully so - it is masterfully developed start to finish. Midway into the book, I realized that there was an additional plot line, which is not evident from the synopsis, and that was a pleasant surprise, as I was getting tired of the constantly squeaking and flaunting their plastic assets Kens.
I went into “Kens” not even looking at GoodReads page. And when I did, I was shocked by how low the average rating was. I think this is the very first book in my life with the rating of fewer than 3 stars that I decided to read and review. I looked at the ratings and was stunned by how repulsed readers seemed to be by the book. Even though I understand that satire and black humour are not for everyone, this displeasure took me by surprise.
“Kens” in many ways reminded me of “Beauty Queens” by Libba Bray. However, I disliked “Beauty Queens” whereas I really enjoyed “Kens”. Personally, I think that the plot structure of “Kens” was much better executed, that is why I never felt lost or confused about what was happening and what was not. Nobody was subjected to any cartoonish tv tropes, like “major injury underreaction” (e.g., brushing off a machete sticking out of their head), which really annoyed me in “Beauty Queens”. “Beauty Queens” seemed to have been better received by readers though. I wonder if this has to do with blatantly gay gayness in “Kens” (which I am all here for) and it tramps over all of the touchy topics in sparkly heels.
“Kens” is a hard book to review. It is blunt, glitter in your face, lipstick on a pig narrative which will make you stop and think twice about what you are actually reading about. Is it a book that is making fun out of such serious and relevant topics as copycat suicides and Black Lives Matter movement? Or is it showing us how artificial and self-absorbed the social media is making us? It is for you to decide.
I say, read it. And maybe keep a pair of pink glasses and a bottle of bubbly on hand as you would definitely need to sparkle up your life once you are done with “Kens”.
I want to applaud the author for having guts to research and write this. It could not have been an easy book to write. I am looking forward to checking out Raziel’s debut novel.
p.s. Read the book and then look at the dust jacket at the back, where the author's photo is. Raziel is so extra. ✨
Rating: 4 stars