The Smaller Evil

  • By Stephanie Kuehn
  • Dutton Books for Young Readers
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Caroline Bock
  • August 24, 2016

This ambitious would-be thriller leaves too many questions unanswered.

The Smaller Evil, by award-winning YA author Stephanie Kuehn, is not what it seems. A horror novel? Another vampire or werewolf tale? Science fiction? No, it’s an often thrilling, sometimes frustrating contemporary story set in the woods of Northern California and focusing on three troubled teenagers drawn into a cult-like self-help retreat with a charismatic leader.

The Smaller Evil is primarily told through the point of view of 17-year-old Arman Dukoff, an anxiety-ridden teen who runs away from his dysfunctional home along with two friends, Kira and Dale. Kira, according to Arman, is “the hottest girl he knew, all soft lips and regal bones, always dressed in the kind of effortless clothes that teased of worlds he’d never knew.”

Much credit should go to the writer for the diversity of her characters. However, in only the first of many contradictions that wrap around Arman, he goes on to admit that he “grew nervous whenever Kira looked right at him, despite the fact that she was black and he didn’t go for black girls.”

Arman will go on to have his first sexual encounter with a young woman at the retreat known to him only as Cook. Ask her name, the readers may want to shout. Dale, Arman’s other companion, is a more typical California-stoner type. Unfortunately, the connections between the three teens never quite come together.

The novel opens with the promise of a page-turning psychological thriller. The setting and the emotions are dark and aching to be explored. Arman and his friends are placing their hope in Beau, the philosophical, heady leader of the retreat. Adults will easily guess such faith is misplaced, but there are plenty of clues, paradoxes, and questions for a teen reader to hold onto.

The narrative boldly attempts to go beyond the issues at the isolated camp to showcase one character’s inner conflict. These dramatizations are relayed in short chapters set off in italics with punchy chapter headers.

“You know what you’re looking for,” begins the novel. It is soon apparent that the “you” is struggling, overwrought, and trying to make sense of a complicated world. However, instead of going deep, this unreliable voice offers insights that, for the most part, skim the surface of a pained teen mind.

What the characters want from themselves or from one another is constantly questioned. The three teens yearn for something — acceptance? Love? Truth? Yet Arman and his friends remain enigmas wrapped in enigmas, leaving the reader circling for meaning.  

One puzzle solved by the end is the explanation of the titular “smaller evil.” When Arman asks Beau about the group’s “doctrine of the double effect,” Beau explains it this way: “It’s a philosophical principle that states an immoral act can sometimes be considered moral if the greater good outweighs the smaller evil.”

In this ambitious story, it’s all relative — good and evil, right and wrong. This philosophy leaves one feeling pessimistic about life’s possibilities and gives the reader little to root for. Perhaps that’s the true smaller evil.

Caroline Bock is author of the critically acclaimed young-adult novels LIE and Before My Eyes from St. Martin’s Press. Her short story, “Gargoyles and Stars,” won the 2016 Writer Magazine short-story contest. She lives in Maryland and is at work on a novel for adults.

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