“I plead the blood” was the last thing Clay Tate’s father said to him as he died. This was after he slaughtered a dozen pregnant cows and attempted to do the same to the bull in the breeding barn. Papa Tate had been driven mad by who knows what—a bad batch of genetics, maybe, or meth—and as the one year anniversary of his death rapidly approaches Clay begins to recognize his father’s madness repeating in himself. It all begins again when Clay is harvesting wheat on his family’s farm and accidentally runs over a golden calf, just as his late father predicted. Soon he’s seeing things that aren’t there and hearing sinister voices in his head.
Fate pushes him back into the orbit of the Preservation Society, the council populated exclusively by the descendants of the founders of Clay’s Oklahoma hometown. He and his former friends are the sixth generation from the founders, but their intertwined destinies are greater than football and barbecues. As Clay loses sense of what’s real and what’s imaginary, the body count rises. Terrible killings fuel wild accusations of murderous insanity and devil worship and poor Clay is caught right in the middle of it.
On the surface, The Last Harvest is dark and sinister, a haunting tale of demon possession and teenagers gone bad. It’s a chilling, Stephen King-lite story with a dash of teen slasher movie gore. It’s entirely possible to read Liggett’s latest novel and experience only the good stuff. I’d argue that in order to do so you’d have to turn off your brain and treat it like literary candy, willfully ignoring the bad and to savor the good. It’s a book meant to be read quickly; a binge read makes the more uncomfortable issues less apparent. But I’d be remiss in my duties as a reviewer if I didn’t dig deeper.
For a YA book, the teenagers were woefully unrealistic. No matter how many times Clay sees something horrific that vanishes before anyone else can confirm it, he never uses his cell phone to take a photo to prove his case. He never considers using the internet to research what’s happening to him. In fact, none of the kids use social media at all. And the texting, Hera help me, the texting. For whatever reason, Liggett has them texting in grammatically correct, emoji- and shorthand-free sentences. I don’t even know adults who text like that. When you write 21st century teenagers, they have to behave like 21st century teenagers.
If unauthentic teenagers were the books worst misstep, I probably wouldn’t be bothered too much—it’s a common fault in fiction, YA or otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s symptomatic of a larger problem, specifically that characters aren’t much more than tropes and ciphers. All the characters not Clay exist only as plot devices devoid of character development. Worse, the main teenage girl, Ali, couldn’t pass the sexy lamp test if her life depended on it. Literally the only thing I know about her is that she has the hots for Clay. Clay’s just as bland. Anger seems to be his main personality trait, a quirk abandoned when it is no longer narratively relevant and replaced with horniness.
Liggett does little new with the horror genre. The characters were easily recognizable in their genre roles and the plot was ten shades of rote. Everything plays out exactly as you’d expect it to. Those who’ve read widely in horror, particularly YA horror, will recognize a lot of the same mile markers here. Again, if you don’t mind reading a book that offers only what it says on the tin, then The Last Harvest will suit you just fine.
There was one more aspect of this novel that left me cold and wanting: the utter lack of diversity. Every single character is cis-het and white. Every. Single. One. I don’t believe for a second that a town big enough to have a large public high school has no people of color or queer people at all. Clay’s town was supposed to be founded by Irish immigrants, but that still doesn’t explain the absence of PoC. According to the 2010 census, 31% of Oklahoma’s population are PoC compared to only 12.6% with Irish ancestry, making the lack of racial diversity even more intolerable. Conservative estimates claim nearly 4% of the US population is queer, but you wouldn’t know it if The Last Harvest was anything to go by. Not to mention the absence of body, religious, and disability diversity. For a book published in 2017, especially a YA novel, the lack of representation is more than inexcusable, it’s irresponsible.
A few years ago I instituted a diversity rule for the media in which I partake. Whatever I’m watching or reading has to have target groups represented and they have to have more than one line and not just be stereotypes or background characters. It’s a pretty low bar to cross. To me it’s about respect as much as representation. If a creator doesn’t care enough about their audience to reflect their experiences then I don’t care enough to be in that audience. The Last Harvest failed my test without question.
To be clear, while lacking representation makes The Last Harvest disappointing, it doesn’t make it inherently a “bad” book. No one is obligated to adhere to my representational criteria, nor should you automatically discount Liggett’s book because I didn’t care for certain elements. I won’t personally recommend The Last Harvest because of those factors, but I also won’t dismiss it as not worth reading. Trite and unimaginative, sure, but it’s not a totally unpleasant read. A quick glance at some of the other reader reviews online shows that my opinion is in the minority. Many readers seem to have enjoyed The Last Harvest in spite of or without regard to the factors that so irritated me. One reader’s paint-by-numbers plot, flat characters, and dire lack of diversity is another’s treasure I guess.
Speaking of treasure, taking it without any genre or diversity context, The Last Harvest is a gripping novel. There’s a lot of violence and it’s all pretty intense and bloody, as is expected in a story about demon possession, devil worship, and animal and human sacrifice. Liggett does a fine job in setting the tone—think The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby crossed with Friday Night Lights—and she’s good at ramping up the tension with unsettling scenarios. The story moves at a brisk clip and doesn’t dawdle. The horror elements are eerie and gory enough to keep up the suspense. It’s best read late at night in one go and right before bed. If you don’t mind lowering the bar, it makes for a not awful enough way to spend a few hours.
The Last Harvest is available now from Tor Teen.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.