England, fall 1993. Sent against his will, Owen Appletoff arrives at Little Rock boarding school from his hometown of San Diego. Within its high walls awaits Taylor, his handsome golden-haired roommate, with whom a strong friendship quickly blossoms. Meanwhile, Daniel, the sexy school bully, lends a watchful eye to the school’s newest arrival. As the days go by, any harmony Owen sought is torn apart by the strange visions haunting his dreams. The kelpie, a spirit of ancient Celtic legend, has marked him out as a target. In a school where things are not quite as they first appear and everyone seems to be hiding something, Owen, Taylor, and Daniel must put aside their differences to unravel the mysteries of Little Rock.
Full of dark menace and sinister undertones, Little Rock takes place in 1993 and follows Owen Appleton, a new student at a boarding school who is attending against his will. He is, as of yet, confused about his sexuality and finds himself developing romantic feelings for his roommate, Daniel. To add to his confusion, he’s also sexually attracted to the school bully/bad boy Daniel and begins developing romantic feelings for him as well. Normally, I’m not a fan of love triangles, but I enjoyed the way the author handled it in this novel. I soon found myself rooting for the boy I hoped Daniel would choose.
But alas, Little Rock is not solely about a boy falling in love. Daniel soon begins to have nightmares and even visions about a Kelpie, a shape-changing aquatic spirit of Scottish Legend, often in the shape of a horse or with the skull of a horse. The spirit is said to haunt rivers and streams. Daniel soon hears murmurs about a student who had drowned in the lake the year prior, and many say it was a Kelpie that killed him. As Daniel’s nightmares intensify, he is certain that the Kelpie is now targeting him and that perhaps his days are numbered.
This was the first story I’ve ever read that featured a Kelpie, and I feel this really added a compelling element to the narrative. In this way, the author takes the fantasy genre and turns it into something interesting and new — at least, for me. I loved how the author ratchets up the menace, as the narrative turns a bit dark, with an overall sense of foreboding, hints of menace, and a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right.
In telling the story, the author touches on some tough themes, such as bullying, abuse, murder, and more, though the author handles them with sensitivity. I enjoyed journeying with Daniel, Owen, and Taylor as they navigate a dark and twisting path, investigating old Celtic legends and unearthing dark secrets about their school. All three characters were distinct in their own ways, and I loved seeing their relationships play out on the page.
Let me also add that the original version of this book was much more graphic and much darker than this latest version. The author informed me that he had made some significant updates to the story and had removed the most disturbing sections of it. Thus, you may read earlier reviews that speak of these now absent scenes. Though the story in its current form does touch upon some dark topics, there are no gruesome, gory, or especially disturbing explicit scenes (or at least from my perspective).
All in all, I really enjoyed this unique story. It was heartbreaking in places, a tad disturbing but ultimately hopeful. I like how the tension, drama, and surprising denouement bring this unorthodox novel home to a pretty compelling and satisfying conclusion, and though the story takes place in 1993, I enjoyed how the flowing prose added a gothic, old-timey feel to it. Recommended!
A huge thank you to Álex Beltrán and BookSirens for providing me with a review copy of this book.