During my journey as a writer and entering the world as a published author, I have met many interesting people--some more interesting than most. There are few instances when I'm blown away by someone. Sam Reader (some of you might know him as CaiusCaligula) is definitely one of the people in my life that continue to blow my mind. I've featured his reviews on my blog several times now and when I put forth my call for submissions for October, my heart did a cartwheel when he answered the call. I can gush until the end of time about him, but I don't want to take up more of your time with him. So, here's what you have to know about Sam Reader:
I am a reviewer, ranter, and occasional commentator on society in general. I am foulmouthed, crazy, and an incredibly strange person who is very proud of those things.
Definitely my kind of guy!
Today, he reviews NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. Based on his review alone, I want to read this book. I'm just gathering the courage to actually do so because nightmares, man, nightmares.
With all that said, Sam, the blog's all yours.
The bad parts are a tendency to lose itself in its own language a little, some nods and name-checks that I didn't really think fit well, and the way it sort of feels too loose. Like it's trying to cover too much ground, or trying too hard to be like something else. But these are very minor nitpicks, and the book is a relentless, nasty, but still fantastic read.
This is a book people should be recommending, and if they are, this is a book people should recommend for many years. It'll stay with the people who read it, I guarantee.
"THE BRAT CAN FIND THE WRAITH"
- Maggie Leigh/Scrabble tiles
I really wish these books would stop finding me. Well, no, that's a lie. But it seems like whenever I need a book, one drops right in. I was struggling through Infernal Devices, a book that has almost killed this damn blog (Thanks, KW Jeter), when a few days ago, I received an alert for a book request I didn't remember filing. I'd been curious about Joe Hill's new book NOS4A2, and the library I'm closest to doesn't allow me to take out books on reserve (I don't technically live in the town, but one street up from it), so I'd just chalked it up to me needing to get lucky. And then one day I got an email from the other library I go to, telling me I'd reserved a copy of NOS4A2 and needed to pick it up. So in its own way, while I'd known about it and sought it out, it waited until the right time to find me. And it is a brilliant book, though I don't know if I'm ever gonna read it again.
NOS4A2 tells the story of Vic McQueen, a girl who is able to find anything when she rides her Raleigh bike over the old covered bridge behind her house. A bridge that becomes a shortcut to anywhere, as long as she stops thinking and goes as fast as she can. Vic uses the bridge to find things-- a lost bracelet, a picture, and sometimes some help or trouble. Except the bridge doesn't always exist. Vic's bridge is the ghost of a bridge that got torn down in 1986. And when she goes over it, her eyeball starts throbbing and she gets very, very sick.
NOS4A2 is also the story of Charles Talent Manx the Third. Charlie Manx drives his big black Rolls-Royce Wraith through roads no one's ever heard of. And once a year, with the help of his terrifying childlike assistant the Gasmask Man, Charlie brings a child, a veryspecial child, to a place he calls "Christmasland", where it's Christmas all year round, and everything's a big amusement park, and children can stay children and happy forever. And as he takes them on a journey, from their unloving families into Christmasland, they start to change. Christmasland doesn't exist anywhere in the United States, it only exists in a corner of Charles Manx's twisted imagination. And the children he brings there never come back...
One day. Vic rides over her bridge and winds up meeting Charlie Manx. And in the brief yet terrifying confrontation that follows, both of them make a permanent impression on the other. But Vic manages to escape Charlie and move on, and Charlie finally gets caught.
Except that's not the end of the story. Charlie is comatose in a prison hospital ward, and Vic is left traumatized and not sure what is real or fake, her continued trips over the bridge forcing her physical and mental health into a tailspin. But one day Charlie wakes up, grabs a bone hammer, and walks right off the autopsy table with only Vic and the insult he dealt her on his mind. And if Vic and those she loves are going to survive, she's going to have to find her power again, and this time rip Christmasland apart piece by piece.
I suppose the thing I like the most about NOS4A2 is the central conceit. It's in a class of its own as a dark fantasy novel, and what Joe Hill basically did was take the territory people like Stephen King, Charles de Lint, and Clive Barker have traversed before, and turn it inside out. In books like The Thief of Always, and It, and the rest of them, magic and a certain childhood innocence are actually the way the good guys win. Here, that optimism and childlike wonder are the enemy. In NOS4A2, the magic is actually bad across the board-- Vic suffers headaches and a fractured psyche from making her trips (though that's mostly the rationalization that she's not making them), her friend Maggie has a severe stammer from using her bag of magic scrabble tiles, and the villain is actually completely wasted away due to making his cross-reality trips so often.
On top of this, the villain's whole goal is to preserve the innocence and magic of childhood forever, a process that turns the children into something else. I don't wanna spoil it completely, but let's say that in Hill's view, at least in this book, growing up and learning to keep yourself you is a hell of a lot more important than keeping your childhood innocence. It's refreshing to see a book like this take the stance of "You can find a way to keep you the way you are, but at a certain point, you can't remain a kid and keep that part of you forever." and actually make it stick despite being a fantasy. The book actually makes a point of that-- Vic isn't ready to deal with her powers until she's an adult, and the people who do try to deal with them before then usually have something of a cost.
The characterizations are actually something to be praised, too. Vic is presented in the later chapters (when she's grown up) as someone seriously trying to deal with her trauma and failing at it. You desperately want her to climb out of the hole she's in, to get better, and the sad fact of it is, she can't. It's grim, but it's realistic, right down to having her believe two versions of the events-- one that matches up with some kind of reality, and one that goes off into fancy. However, Hill does invert it: The thing clearly intended to be an empowerment fantasy is the real event, and the real event turns into the fantasy. The villain could be a character out of a children's book...if he wasn't rotting, living off of the souls of children, and willing to thoroughly destroy any adults who try to stop him. His henchman is someone who keeps a sort of childlike innocence about him, but is a creepy serial killer. Even at the end, I liked that not everyone went back to normal. There were still indelible scars in there. But with the exception of the monster and his monster car, the characters all seemed real, and it never felt like the plot. Which may have been part of the point.
Charlie Manx himself seems like a character from a children's book gone rotten. He's the tall, comical man who takes the kids to dreamland, except dreamland is frightening and he's not saving anyone from an abusive fate, but delivering them to a worse one. There's even a comparison to Harry Potter, or Narnia, that one character makes.
And the plot, while a little overlong, is actually fairly tightly-written. Joe Hill has never been one much for padding, and there isn't much of it here. While it's not quite like his earlier books, where he pulled the lever, let the trapdoor fall out from under the reader, and let them ride a long, howling slide to the end; it's taut and moves along at a good pace for its almost seven hundred pages of length. And it is necessary to tell the story of the first half of the book so the reader can get to the story. Keeping a plot this involved moving at this pace, with the cinematic flourishes it has, is a trick in and of itself, and one that requires quite an undertaking.
But the plot is one place where I feel like there could have been some trimming. It takes us into the characters' heads, but some of this could be handled in flashback. Also, the book has a tendency to occasionally get lost in its own language. A notable point where this happens is during the sections with Charlie Manx, where the descriptions tend to gently overwhelm the action going on. Also, the number of references and name-checks just served to annoy me. I kinda like it when Stephen King references his other works in his books, but I don't like it as much when there are Tower references in other books. Between this and the Amanda Palmer reference, it just felt sort of forced. It took me out of it.
The other thing I will warn about is that the book is relentlessly grim. Most of the characters you meet will be crushed in some way, be it spiritually, mentally, or by Manx's hammer. Innocence will either get people killed, or turn them into a monster. It's not a nice story, and even as a very dark fantasy, it is dark. While the pessimism begins to relent near the end, there are almost six hundred pages of every hope and avenue being extinguished one by one to reach that point. There were times I almost closed the book and walked away completely. It's effective, and it's evocative, but I feel like I should warn people. Even Private Midnight didn't unsettle me this much.
But in the end, the book is worth the read. It's worth the find if it even evokes half the emotions it got out of me. I don't recommend buying it, but you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't read it. So find this book. Or it might just find you.
I never get tired of reading Sam's reviews, which is why I love recommending his blog to everyone I know. Make sure to visit him at: http://www.strangelibrary.com/ He just reviewed the much hyped The Bone Season, and I have to say I completely agree with him.
Once you're done devouring Sam's review, make sure to enter The Momager's sponsored Giveaway: