Summary: It’s 1997 and Leah just can’t seem to catch a break.
A year has passed since her fiancé went missing while hiking alone on a mountain, and she can’t shake the unanswered questions and nightmares Simon left behind.
On the anniversary of his disappearance, Leah and her new girlfriend Josie return to the trail where Simon disappeared with two of their best friends. Armed with incense, tarot cards, crystals, and snacks, the girls have everything they need to complete the Ritual of Closure to help Leah finally say goodbye to Simon, once and for all.
But the trails are hiding something sinister, and it’s been waiting. As night falls around them, the girls find themselves in a deadly game against something vicious and wild that’s made a home for itself on the mountain.
It’s time to find out what really happened to Simon.
Content Warning: Gore, Cannibalism, Child Death
Review: For the sake of a disclaimer, I will say that the author and I are mutuals on Twitter. However, that won’t stop me from giving an honest review on a novella that honestly intrigued me. Pansexual representation in a YA horror novel? 90s nostalgia? An incredibly creepy forest and hiking trail? All of those sounded like complete winners to me.
In the end, Brutal Hearts proves a diverting and incredibly fast-paced read with lots of potential. However, this YA novella has a few glaring weaknesses as it winds down the mystery of Simon’s disappearance.
First, let’s talk about what the novella does right here. Daley does a pretty good job setting up the atmosphere of the hiking trail. It’s the main location for the story, and I could see it very clearly in my head. Those steep mountains, the claustrophobic forest, that gorgeous waterfall and its accompanying river that goes much, much deeper than it looks, I’ve been in those places before whether it be in Appalachia or the Rockies. When you’re there, especially with a small group, it can feel like anything can happen to you in those wild places, and Cassie Daley gets that setting done right.
I also really enjoy the actual tension of the novella. Cassie Daley knows how to set up some good scares. It was surprising reading how gory it could get in a novella made for a younger audience. More than once, I found myself covering my mouth or squeezing my eyes shut in sympathy at a character’s wounds. It’s a great decision to really make the reader question whether or not a character will make it through this.
Unfortunately, Brutal Hearts has a few major downsides, at least to me. For one thing, the character development is extremely minimal. Josie appears to be our main protagonist, but we don’t really know much about her outside that she loves hiking and her girlfriend, Leah. We know she’s on this trip in the first place to support Leah, but we don’t really get much more than that. Nor do we get to see her relationship with Leah change or grow or, really, what they see in each other. I kind of wanted more interaction between them to justify the lengths they go through for one another.
Furthermore, I really didn’t see much of any reason why these girls are friends? For example, Charlotte and May, the two members of Leah’s “coven,” are completely unlike Leah or Josie in personality. So much so that Charlotte is a constant annoyance to pretty much anyone but May, her younger sister. Why are they friends? Do they even like each other?
Finally, the creature of this book, while well-designed and terrifying, needed a bit more explanation to justify the twist at the end of this book. How did this happen? Is it a medical explanation? Supernatural? Is there a planned sequel to explain this?
Overall, Brutal Hearts makes for a really fast summer read, but I wouldn’t expect much substance outside of a couple chills. Think of it as a bit of gory fun to splash yourself with.