Today, I’m reviewing Agnes at the End of the World, debut novel by Kelly McWilliams! It’s coming out in just a few days, on June 9, and you can preorder it here (IndieBound, Amazon, Book Depository) – and submit your receipt here before June 9 for a signed bookplate, bookmarks, stickers, magnet, and an entry for a chance to win a $100 gift card to the bookstore of your choice (open internationally!). It has already gotten some great hype, including starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, and was featured as one of People Magazine’s 20 Best Books to Read This Summer, so when Kelly asked if I’d be interested in reading the book, I jumped at the chance! I received an e-ARC of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Agnes at the End of the World follows the dual stories of two sisters, Agnes and Beth, and their lives in the town of Red Creek. Agnes is devout, faithful, and obedient – except for the secret she holds; her younger brother Ezekial has Type I Diabetes, and in their town, Red Creek, medicine is strictly forbidden. She meets an Outsider boy named Danny, who helps her realize the truth behind Red Creek – that it is a cult controlled by a madman – and also tells her about a terrifying and mysterious Virus that is infecting humans and animals alike. Quickly, Agnes starts to see through the smoke and mirrors, and we watch as her faith in the Prophet cracks and shatters, and she realizes she must escape with Ezekiel in order to keep him safe. However, once she reaches the Outside, she encounters a whole new set of obstacles to face. Through it all, Agnes remains steadfast in her love and loyalty to her family and to her God, who reveals power to her in mysterious and terrifying ways.
Meanwhile, Beth is beautiful, rebellious, and dares to think outside the box. She constantly questions at authority, poking and prodding, sneaking off to kiss Cory Jameson, son of one of the wealthiest patriarchs in the town, but when Magda, Cory’s younger sister, calls her out and incites bullying against her, Beth withdraws in order to protect herself. Beth’s character is complicated, flawed, and uncertain, and as I was reading the book, my heart ached for her and the ways I saw myself and my insecurities reflected in her. She is constantly living in Agnes’ perfect and obedient shadow, and she longs for love and acceptance. Both girls have complex journeys through the course of the book, and their characters evolve and adapt to the circumstances surrounding them.
The Virus in this book is an interesting entity. It infects creatures and drives them to both infect others and create Nests, which are static amalgamation of sick, but living, creatures. The concept behind the Virus was interesting, but I do wish it had been fleshed out a bit more, as the Virus storyline was secondary to and overshadowed by Agnes’ faith journey.
The writing in Agnes is wonderfully engaging and beautiful, with a fast-paced plot and twists. It is emotional and hopeful, with strong, multi-faceted characters, and powerful messages about family and rising up against spiritual abuse. The cult is terrifying, the way the Prophet uses his words and twists holy scripture to fit his agenda, and I loved the way Agnes and Beth rose up against his words and chains to create their own way. This is definitely a book you do not want to miss and a debut author to watch, but please be aware that this book takes place during a viral pandemic and may not be the book for everyone at this time.
Overall rating: 4.5/5
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Kelly is a mixed-race writer who has always gravitated towards stories about crossing boundaries and forging new identities. For this and so many other reasons, young adult literature will always be close to her heart. She is a graduate of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Brown University. Her upcoming novel, AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD, benefitted from a We Need Diverse Books Mentorship.
Photo credit to Black Forest Photography
With love, Pei