Review: Bad Cree by Jessica JohnsBad Cree by Jessica Johns
Published by HarperCollins Canada on January 10, 2023
Genres: Fiction, Folklore, Horror
Pages: 304
Source: Received from publisher

In this gripping, horror-laced debut, a young Cree woman’s dreams lead her on a perilous journey of self-discovery that ultimately forces her to confront the toll of a legacy of violence on her family, her community and the land they call home.

"A mystery and a horror story about grief, but one with defiant hope in its beating heart." —Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Pallbearers Club

When Mackenzie wakes up with a severed crow's head in her hands, she panics. Only moments earlier she had been fending off masses of birds in a snow-covered forest. In bed, when she blinks, the head disappears.

Night after night, Mackenzie’s dreams return her to a memory from before her sister Sabrina’s untimely death: a weekend at the family’s lakefront campsite, long obscured by a fog of guilt. But when the waking world starts closing in, too—a murder of crows stalks her every move around the city, she wakes up from a dream of drowning throwing up water, and gets threatening text messages from someone claiming to be Sabrina—Mackenzie knows this is more than she can handle alone.

Traveling north to her rural hometown in Alberta, she finds her family still steeped in the same grief that she ran away to Vancouver to escape. They welcome her back, but their shaky reunion only seems to intensify her dreams—and make them more dangerous.

What really happened that night at the lake, and what did it have to do with Sabrina’s death? Only a bad Cree would put their family at risk, but what if whatever has been calling Mackenzie home was already inside?

Bad Cree follows Mackenzie, a Cree millennial living a mundane existence in Vancouver…until the day she wakes from a nightmare holding a bloody crow’s head in her palm. Drawing on Cree mythology, this debut novel is a tense, moving exploration of loss and the importance of community.

While the horror elements are undeniable – hello, bloody crow’s head – Bad Cree is a story about grief first. After her beloved kokum dies, home doesn’t feel right anymore and Mackenzie takes off in search of a new life in Vancouver. But a change of scenery hasn’t lifted the fog of grief, and when news comes that her sister Sabrina has also died, Mackenzie can’t deal. Unable to face the reality of her loss, Mackenzie doesn’t even go home for her sister’s funeral. As if the sadness, guilt, and shame aren’t enough, Mackenzie soon finds herself plagued by terrifying dreams and followed by crows wherever she goes. Desperate, she reluctantly returns home in hopes that her family will know what’s happening to her – and how to stop it.

Jessica Johns masterfully crafts a protagonist you can’t help rooting for, even when she’s far from perfect. I love reading about characters who make crappy choices, who screw up but keep trying, because that’s real life. We don’t always act in the ways we know we should, especially when we’re hurting. Mackenzie loves her family deeply and wants to be close to them, but she allows her fear and self-loathing to drive her away from them. Maybe all the freaky things that keep happening to her are because she’s a bad Cree. Of course, it’s when she’s surrounded by her family and their “Aunty energy” that Mackenzie can make sense of what’s been happening to her.

I love reading about characters who make crappy choices, who screw up but keep trying, because that's real life.

The Aunty energy in this book is strong and essential. Healing hurt and unravelling mystery happens when the younger generations rely on older women in their community for knowledge and wisdom. These “Aunties” might literally be your aunt but they could be anyone you share a kinship with. Aunties will give you guidance, they’ll scold you, they’ll give you good medicine, and they’ll love you even when you don’t love yourself. Without Auntie energy, there would be no Bad Cree. In fact, every single speaking character in the novel is a woman or nonbinary person!

From the characters to the setting, the supernatural to the mundane, everything in Bad Cree works because of Jessica Johns’ strong writing. Her prose is understated and compulsively readable, and I especially loved how she described the Canadian prairies. There’s a lot of love packed into her evocative descriptions of the unending sky, the unique storms, and even the haunting sight of abandoned buildings dotted along the landscape. That love of the land is balanced against the creeping, unsettling sense that something is deeply wrong there — and it has been ever since Mackenzie’s kokum died. Even after the mystery is uncovered and that “wrongness” is defeated, Mackenzie still needs to work on mending her relationships. That realism felt good and right, and I was completely satisfied by the ending.

Highly recommended for horror fans and those looking to read more Indigenous fiction.