Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)
Series: Stranger Things
Length: 301 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.
It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program. Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.
In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university. When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment. Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken. Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.
As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are. When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done. With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program. But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.
It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia. Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series. Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.
Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience. The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists. Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done. One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.
It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show. This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory. As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show. Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given. As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born. All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.
In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner. Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance. For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding. This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show. Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother. I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book. By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.
Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed. For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show. Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters. There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot. I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1. Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.
One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references. Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society. While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point. Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations. Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre. These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting. I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source. As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books. I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.
Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series. Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist. Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.