The first official novel set in the world of Stranger Things arrives this week and it’s filled with all the intrigue, mystery, and character work fans have come to expect from the franchise. Come inside for my full review of Suspicious Minds!
We’re big fans of Stranger Things in my house and the wait for Season 3 of the series has been longer than ever before. As we near the July release, however, fans have something to tide them over. Suspicious Minds is the first official novel set within Stranger Things canon and man...it’s way better than I was expecting.
Don’t get me wrong here, I wasn’t exactly expecting the book to be bad or anything, but I was trying to keep my hype in check. Not every franchise does well in transitioning to new mediums, and with this, comics, and a new video game on the way, Stranger Things is moving forward at a breakneck pace.
Not everything can live up to the high stands set by the show (much like not every Star Wars related media is going to be the best either), so I tried to temper my expectations. I’m happy to say I need not have worried and Suspicious Minds brings together just about all of the elements that makes the show so great, while telling a new story that fans can dive into.
Gwenda Bond brings the new story to life, which takes us all the way back to 1969-70 which is long before the Hawkins’ kids we’ve come to know and love are barely a thought. Instead the focus is on Terry Ives, Eleven’s mother, detailing how she originally came to know Dr. Brenner and apart of his devious work on the MKUltra Project at Hawkins Laboratory.
As part of her college courses (and to make extra money), Terry volunteers to take part in a seemingly normal clinical experiment. Before long, however, she realizes the work being done is far bigger than she expected. Along with her newfound friends who are also part of the experiment, Terry endeavors to uncover the secrets she’s being used for and the mystery of the little girl she’s discovered in the lab.
That’s the gist of the story, but I don’t want to dive much further into details than that. Much like the show, so much of what makes it fun is learning the details and solving the mysteries along with the characters. Sure, it’s a prequel story and thanks to flashbacks, we ultimately know how it ends, but there are still plenty of surprises.
There’s a lot going into this story and it moves at a surprisingly quick pace (though it covers a decent period of time). There are some familiar setups in the story, with Terry and her friends forming their own “Fellowship” the group dynamic is present and almost instantly engaging. In a short amount of time you become attached to these characters and feel for the things they’re having to endure. You share their joy and fear, while finding it easy to root for them.
In this Gwenda bond shows her deft hand at writing characters. I honestly haven’t read other stuff she’s written, but was enamored with her character work in Suspicious Minds. Her writing style is very direct, but allows the emotions to shine through, making it easy to engage with characters quickly and via their actions in the story. Because of this I found myself wrapped up in the main plot in a heartbeat.
Perhaps my favorite aspect, however, is how we get the chance to delve into the mind of Dr. Brenner himself. Perhaps more than the Demogorgon, Brenner was the ever-present evil in the show’s first season. His cruelty and “ends justify the means” attitude makes him easy to hate in the show, and it was thrilling to get to see more of him in the novel.
In Suspicious Minds, we not only get to see more of the things he’s working on BEFORE Eleven comes into the picture, but we get learn more about his own thought processes and motivations. In short order I found myself hating the character even more than I had before, and by the end of the novel I can say Bond made Brenner as hated a character in my mind as even Joffrey from Game of Thrones.
Telling Its Own Story
I feel like I keep repeating this idea, but I can’t stress enough how quick of a read this book turned out to be. I mean, I have four kids in the house (including a toddler) with a stack of movie/games to review as well...And yet, I still managed to knock out this 300 page novel in just a couple days. I was riveted. It wasn’t long before the pages began to turn, seemingly of their own accord, and I was unable to pull away from the story being told.
While we don’t get all the answers we want, it fills in a very large gap in the life of one of the most important characters to the Stranger Things story. One of the things I worried about with it being a prequel is that it might be filled with too much fan service and nods to the series; beholden in a way that would prevent it from being enjoyable on its own. Again, I’m happy to say I need not have worried.
While there’s plenty of things for fans to enjoy in terms of Easter eggs and overall connecting points, none of it feels heavy-handed. Instead, it’s woven expertly into the plot, integrated directly into the lore and gives the sense that you’re uncovering something deeper, rather than just clever winks.
Even more important, despite having direct connections to certain events in the show, Suspicious Minds manages to tell its own complete story. While there are a couple dangling threads (to which the show have already answered), by the end of the book the story being told has reached a conclusion that feels definitive and satisfactory. You’re left hungry for more, but in the best way possible, as the book manages the balancing act between interconnected prequel and standalone story.