Every Stolen Breath
Every Stolen Breath is a tense, taut thriller about life, death and justice. Inspired by the Flash Mob violence in Chicago in 2011, this eerie whodunit examines just how far we’ll go in memory of the ones we love.
She’s the least likely sleuth in the world. Suffering from both debilitating asthma and PTSD from her father’s death, emotionally and physically fragile highschooler Lia (Amelia) Finch should most definitely not be investigating the Swarm. That flash mob of teens randomly and viciously attacks individuals without warning, murdering innocent pedestrians seemingly without cause. Or do they? Lia’s father, a prosecuting attorney, had been searching for the who and why behind the barbarous behavior of these thugs when he was killed by the very group he was scrutinizing. The mob went silent after his death and the inhabitants of the city believe themselves safe once more. Not Lia. Two years later, she is the only one still actively looking for her father’s attackers, which is why she discovers – and deciphers – the tweet telling when and where the Swarm’s next assault will be. She calls the police, leaving an anonymous tip, and heads to Navy Pier hoping to catch pictures or videos of the teens involved in the mob. Somehow, in a city filled with cameras, their activity has never produced a single scrap of visual evidence.
Lia was right as to the details of the attack but woefully unprepared for how quickly everything escalates and just what kind of danger she faces by being anywhere near the event. It’s pretty clear she’s going to be another victim of the violence-fueled pack when a mysterious boy helps her escape by throwing her into nearby Lake Michigan. She doesn’t remember how she managed to save herself, but she comes to at the mayor’s house, having apparently swum a mile to get to his dock. That brings with it its own problems, since she is not only unprepared to answer questions from the authorities as to just how she managed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, she is also unprepared to deal with the mayor’s obnoxious, sarcastic son Cullen, whom she knows – and despises – from school. Fortunately, her ragged appearance and the severe asthma attack following such extreme physical activity force them to get her medical treatment before cross questioning her. Unfortunately, all the evidence Lia had gathered at the Pier – pictures of the assailants, footage of the attack – was either lost during her frenzied escape or erased by whoever hacked into her account as she was fleeing.
Later that night, finally at home and mourning the loss of all the information she gathered, Lia has a clandestine visitor. Noise alerts her to a stranger in the backyard but they are gone before she can catch them. They leave behind gifts though: her missing backpack, which she’d dropped on the Pier, and a cryptic warning written in the dust covering the lid of their grill – “back off”. She won’t do that until her father’s killers are brought to justice.
Determined to find answers, even if she dies trying, Lia prepares to fight on her own for the truth. Instead, she finds herself part of a surprising team of people willing to help uncover the facts about the Swarm. Made up of a young hacker, an intrepid reporter and Ryan, the boy who saved her life, Lia’s new gang will risk all to find out just who is instigating the deadly events terrorizing Chicago.
Written in first person format with clear, crisp prose, Every Stolen Breath is a mesmerizing story of a truly frightful situation. Needless to say, this isn’t a cheery book and there are moments of truly horrific violence, and while the author doesn’t give gory details, she does an excellent job of capturing the appalling nature of the mob’s brutal attacks. The group of teens surrounds people, creating an impenetrable wall through sheer numbers, and then literally beats them to death. The first person narration of being a witness to such events really ratchets up the tension, helping us share Lia’s fear, sorrow, helplessness and panic. Ms. Garbriel’s ability to make the emotions of her lead character visceral and real are the strongest aspect of the story. I found myself as desperate as Lia was to bring an end to the Swarm’s reign of terror.
Lia’s vulnerabilities make her an excellent narrator for this enthralling thriller. Her asthma attacks, which occur frequently, remind us that she can’t outrun or physically outmaneuver her opponents. Her only hope is to outwit them. Her PTSD, which comes complete with hallucinations, flashbacks and nightmares, gives an additional aura of delicacy to her already precarious state. Her mind is her greatest weapon in this fight and yet even that is flawed. Her stubborn perseverance in the midst of these difficulties is deeply admirable – but it added to my struggles with the believability of the story.
Teen detective tales tend to work best when the young sleuth has unique abilities or insight to use in solving the puzzle. Lia’s only skill seemed to be tenacity. She has to use the talents of others – the hacking expertise of her friend Adam, the research proficiency of her ally in the media and Ryan’s physical strength and insider knowledge of the Swarm – to stitch together sufficient information to uncover a key figure orchestrating the violence. This meant the other characters had to be oddly passive about the truly vile events taking place on the streets of their city. There was just no reason for this fragile (but determined!) teenage girl to be the point person for this problem.
Which meant that the writing of the secondary characters was, as a result, weaker than it should have been. I couldn’t understand the placidity of Lia’s mom, who drifts in and out of the story with almost no agency of her own. Cullen, the mayor’s son, also appears and disappears throughout the narrative, behaving in a rather bizarre manner, with his overall demeanor practically screaming deus ex machina. Ryan also confused me with his inertia, willing to help the frail Lia but seemingly unwilling to search out stronger allies. And I didn’t buy the budding romance between the two at all. They had no relationship aside from their fight for justice and didn’t know each other well enough to be in love. I feel almost guilty complaining about these flaws since the story does hold your interest while reading it, but this is the kind of book where once you put it down, you begin to question the why of almost everything that occurs.
Every Stolen Breath is a début novel, so the author can be forgiven for not getting everything just right her first time out. It’s a fast, gripping, thought-provoking read that falls just a little bit short of all it wants to achieve. I think fans of YA thrillers will find a lot to love here in spite of that.