by Caitlin Kiernan, 353 pages
Not long ago I made my first encounter with Kiernan in her most recent volume, The Red Tree, which I found quite impressive. Unfortuately in this earlier work Kiernan didn't manage anything like the same intensity or literary flair, or even real coherence. The urban fantasy/horror elements are more explicit than in Red Tree but also far less impacting, taking some stock terrors that disturb the characters without ever making for a unique take on fantasy. They disturb the immediate balance of people’s lives but lack the pathos to deliver a truly forceful statement in relation to the larger world, or even the long-term lives of the characters that do managed to survive. The narrative barromater, that is to say, appears to be locked on extremes of reaction in a way that makes it hard to truly accept the details of the backdrop as unique or compelling.
Put this with characterization too spread out and similar to be really effective--the switch from a single tight viewpoint of the Red Tree to four perspectives here isn't a good one--and I wasn't sufficiently invested in anything that happened in the story. It’s clearly deliberate that the characters are generally failures, having an incomplete grasp of their own lives and screwing up again and again with drugs and sex. It doesn’t make them more appealing, though, and given the horror-novel structure depends on some level on having sympathy with them this aspect is unfortunate. While in the Red Tree the main character was complex and compelling despite her extensive flaws and failings, here too much of what they are feels irritating and, worse, predictible.
There was some pathos and effective moments in the very end, but overall I have to judge this book a failure.
Worse than: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Better than: The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint