Freshman year of college is a weird beast–coming from a hometown where it feels like people know you too well to a campus where you can be nameless. My first semester of freshman year was a time of confusion, trying to figure out exactly where I belonged and what I wanted to do now that high school was in my rearview mirror. In Those Who Prey, Jennifer Moffett tells the story of Emily, a college freshman caught in that same sense of limbo–but falls into the jaws of an on-campus cult.
Moffett’s novel is twisty and fast-paced, straddling the gap between YA and adult fiction (is New Adult dead? I think it might be) with an intriguing amount of maturity. Emily is struggling as a college freshman in Boston, far from her family in Mississippi and dealing with the fallout of her roommate dropping out due to drug use, and when she meets a few charismatic and friendly upperclassmen, she becomes intrigued by their membership in a group called The Kingdom. Taking advantage of her religious upbringing and the tragic loss of her mother, as well as her connection with fellow Southerners in the group, Emily soon becomes an enthusiastic member, rushing off to a summer mission in Italy.
Things go south almost immediately, with Emily and the other members having their passports and money taken by Kingdom leaders. Far from home and beginning to doubt some of the Kingdom’s methodology, Emily has to figure out where her loyalties lie.
Moffett has based her novel on robust cult research and her personal experience growing up in the Bible Belt in a church that had a much more famous splinter group known as a cult. She’s done the work to understand how cults operate, especially on college campuses, and work to identify vulnerable people who can embrace the group’s teachings and help bring in new members. The plot moves quickly, but sometimes a little too quickly for my taste–when we get to Emily’s escape, some plot points get dropped or rushed through. The 1990s setting works to heighten the tension, but I think it would have been intriguing to explore how The Kingdom would operate in our modern day when potential recruits can Google everything–how would recruitment work then? And I wish we had spent more time with Kara, the lifetime Kingdom member who kicks off Emily’s escape and seems to have some mysterious secrets that just don’t get explored enough.
But something that Moffett does really well is explore Emily’s trauma–both regarding the death of her mother and the aftereffects of the Kingdom. I really loved the scenes of Emily’s therapy and working to recover from her time in the cult, understanding that recovery isn’t a straight line. I like that more young adult-ish books are working to destigmatise therapy and the value of it even if you haven’t been through an event like Emily.
Whatever Moffett releases next, I think I’ll be first in line to read it–this was an extremely promising debut.
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