The Short Version: Strange things are happening in San Francisco. There’s a serial killer on the loose, a guy who teaches ballroom dancing who doesn’t seem to age, and the circus has just come to town – and, as it turns out, all of these things are connected to a couple of old gods and a power from beyond the stars…
The Review: I haven’t read Empire State or The Age Atomic – but I love the concept of these alternating version of our world and Adam Christopher’s gotten some great buzz because of those books. So when given the opportunity to take a crack at his newest book, I thought “why not?” One has to get started with a new author somehow, might as well be now.
But this book – set in present day San Francisco, with flashbacks to a whole span of times between the present and 1869 on a darkly mysterious world tour – felt less like a place to start and more like something I shouldn’t be reading yet. That is to say, it felt like a draft – the marks of the story were there, roughly sketched out of the marble of inspiration… but there was no definition to it, no smoothness.
There’s quite a lot going on in this novel, which I think is to its detriment considering the relatively short running time. The back of my proof mentions that it’s set to clock in at 400 pages and while that’s not a short book, the level of character development here feels like that of a shorter novel. And the plots are numerous (all leading, as you can no doubt expect, to a single culmination) and while Mr. Christopher seems at times to be managing to keep most of the balls in the air, a reader realizes pretty quickly that, in that sort of sickening way where you can see a trick or stunt start to go wrong, he has in fact launched too many too quickly to sustain more than a few passes before something drops. We have old gods, we have cosmic entities, we have normal young people who work for a blog (oh San Francisco), we have a serial killer, we have these incessant (and far too numerous) flashbacks to an apparently timeless quest… Oh, right, we also have Ted’s sleepwalking thing which may or may not coincide with the serial killer and is also wrapped up in the old god thing and also, and also, and also. There’s a lot going on but I felt like I didn’t have the time to really invest in any of it.
Speaking of investment, the characters here are in service of the story – not the other way around. I couldn’t tell you what any of them really looked like, although Benny was Asian and Bob a surfer dude, Zane sort of schlubby, Ted like a Ted Mosby… etc etc. It’s all one-note – here’s a single defining characteristic and it will be clung to like a life raft, for each character, without exception. It felt like the character we spent the most time with was Joel… but I don’t understand why we spent so much time with him. I didn’t need to see every little cut scene of him going after another piece of whatever it is he’s apparently searching for – even though sharp readers will pick out pretty quickly a) who he is and b) what he’s doing, which begs the question of why Christopher felt that there was anything new to be told or developed by showing yet another moment of him “following the light.” Yeah, sure, the ‘stakes’ (such as they are) raise a little bit as those interludes progress, but not enough to justify what felt like a hundred pages (out of a 400pg novel) of them.
All of this having been said, you can tell that Christopher has a terribly fertile imagination. The fact that he puts all these plots into motion at the same time belies a desire to tell BIG stories that pull on his varied interests (his bio mentions Pertwee Doctor Who, The Cure, The Beatles, tea, and superheroes) – and I dig that. Man, do I ever dig that. And I think that’s what disappointed me most as this story went on. I wanted to follow the serial killer story, directly. I wanted more time with the gods and their stuff. I even, cliched and overused as it has become as a plot device, wouldn’t’ve minded more time tied directly into the circus plots. Each of these stories was cool – but together, there was just too much going on for anything to hold my interest and instead I just sort of… eh.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I never shook the feeling that I was reading a still-nacent draft of this novel. For better or worse – does it mean that there’s more to be mined from this story? Or does it just mean that this one didn’t quite ever get there, wherever where is meant to be? Christopher is a smart writer and excited by what he’s coming up with (you can feel the excitement in the writing) but that excitement never left the page, never transferred to me as a reader. Also, I should note: no one in America calls them prawns.
Anyway. I’m not turned off of wanting to read Christopher’s other work and I’m not particularly against this book in any way – I just never really got into it either.
(This review originally ran at TNBBC – be sure to send them some love!)