Review: “The Cult Called Freedom House,” Stephanie Evelyn

Pros: Excellent ideas
Cons: Execution is a bit rough
Rating: 3 out of 5

Stephanie Evelyn’s The Cult Called Freedom House: Sophia Rey Book 1 has some very solid ideas and concepts behind it, but the narrative style is a bit rough. Cyrus and Penelope run a commune (cult) called Freedom House in California. They’re pulling various street kids into their “Freedom Journey,” including 14-year-old Samantha Watson. Officer Sophia Rey and Detective Salvino have heard rumor of a new cult starting up, and after the way the last one ended–with a mass suicide–they’re bound and determined to break this one open before it’s too late.

First, the good stuff. This is definitely more than your run-of-the-mill cult. I mean sure, there’s sex, but there’s also cannibalism and knives and secret underground rooms (how did Cyrus manage to get all of that dug out, anyway?). Cyrus turns out to have something more to him than just your average perv, thankfully. There are a few genuinely creepy moments in there. There’s also a hint of the paranormal (or maybe traumatized people hallucinate in this book? Hard to tell) to lend spice. There are some interesting twists and turns that I enjoyed, and the last fifth of the book is nice and tense.

Unfortunately, the narrative is pretty rough. It goes on at length early on telling us in-depth about each character and their background instead of working that background into the story at least a little more smoothly (hell, we even know about Sophia’s irrelevant stuffed animal collection from when she was five years old). Cyrus explains things to Penelope that she should already know just so the reader will understand them. Sophia’s chase of a drug dealer could have lent some early energy to the story, but it’s just summarized in retrospect. Sam jumps into the commune knowing nothing about it (literally Miles tells her it’s a commune, and she decides she needs to join), when her personality before that would seem to lend itself to some skepticism and need to develop trust over time. That would have been much more interesting than having her blindly and happily skip off into cult-land.

Some of the outward parts of the cult are a bit laughable. There’s a practice they call “pain yoga” which, from the description, is just yoga carried out in the dark and heat. Since “hot yoga” is already a thing in the real world, it was hard to understand what was supposed to be so creepy about this. It’s bizarre how pieces of the narrative like that one get very coy, while others are very explicit. It’s uneven at best. There are also parts (rubbing raw meat all over one’s body?) which are just yucky rather than the creepy angle I think the author was going for.

Dialogue is very stilted. Everyone sounds the same, and dialogue just doesn’t flow naturally. Penelope could have been a strong creepy figure, but she’s undercut by her deep need to please Cyrus and do whatever he says.

I wish this book could have gotten a thorough rewrite before going out, because I feel like it had the potential to be excellent. Maybe I’ll pick up another novel by the author a couple of books down the line.

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