The Short Version: Gabriel Syme, a secret policeman, strikes up a conversation with an anarchist and manages to bluff his way into a secret anarchist council with the intention of bringing them down. He descends into an increasingly strange and dangerous nightmare of a reality, coming to question absolutely everything he holds true.
The Review: I love Coralie Bickford-Smith’s cover designs. This book first jumped out at me two years ago in London (as did so many books. and general life things) as part of the Read Red series. It has this feeling of the world spun crazy and a race and danger and I love it. So I finally picked it up when I needed a “boy’s adventure” (as this series is called) for my shelf.
The adventure is not really for boys. I mean, there’s derring-do, double-crossing, sword-fighting, etc – but there’s some serious philosophy behind all of this. There is talk of mob mentalities, anarchy vs. government and the pros/cons of each, the nature of human beings, paranoia… It’s all rather heady stuff. Plus, the end of the novel turns into a phantasmagorical nightmare (hence the title) where nothing seems to make any sense and the world literally rips apart at the seams. It is a shocking and unexpected sequence and one that makes you wonder what, exactly, you just read.
That’s maybe the best part about this book – the fact that it is maybe the original (well, not original… but certainly one of the earliest and most surprising) modern-twist-ending(s). I won’t give it away, obviously – but the subtitle (left off the cover, but not the title page) of “: A Nightmare” is far from some authorial lalala. He’s serious and it creates a second level of meaning to the entire novel.
The pace never lets up, of course – and while you can see some of the twists coming (example: the shadowy figure in the room who Syme could never identify? If you don’t get that almost right away, I have to ask what rock you’ve been living under) from miles away, they’re always entertaining. There was such tension built up over the scenes in France, specifically, that I was racing through the book like the characters were racing through the countryside, wondering how on Earth things had gone so awry.
The ending, that crazy nightmare, does have a few problems. It comes somewhat out of nowhere and it is hard to really picture – it just strikes such a dissonant chord with the otherwise quite realistic reality you’ve experienced up to that point. Of course, like Cobb said, “the dream feels real when you’re in it.”
Rating: 4 out of 5. I can’t say too much about this book without giving the twists away, so I’ll end it here. It certainly was thrilling and had such a simple yet fascinating conceit. Good for a quick read when you need an adventure – especially with the bonus of some real philosophy behind it all.