The Short Version: A. is surprised to discover that he has a second cousin in Virginia – who has died and left him a big ol’ mansion. Along with a mute Irish girl named Niamh, he heads to the house which is big, creepy, and full of mysteries. And then the dreams start…
The Review: Holy hell this book is fun. I mean, just damned fun – the sort of breathless adventure that you don’t want to put down and that gets you almost giddy inside because it is just. so. fun.
Remember how you felt reading, I don’t know, The Westing Game? Or maybe playing MAZE as a kid? Or even, on a more personal level, the way I felt while reading From the Dust Returned or The Night Circus. The author has an idea, spins it off madly, and clearly has a ball doing so, to the point that it gets infectious and you, the reader, also end up having a ball.
My friend Christopher Hermelin (yes, he of the ToB fame and my co-host on “So Many Damn Books”) said to me as he started the book that it felt like Cantero couldn’t pick one affectation so he went with them all. And this is correct. Not only is the book told through found objects like diaries and audio transcripts, not only is the main character only referred to as A., not only is the house full of classic spooky-house-trope-things like hidden rooms and a big hedge maze, not only is Niamh a mute Irish punk girl who doesn’t often use the verb ‘to be’ when she writes, not only is there a strange secret society hovering around the edges of the story… and so on. There is no end to this, no ‘but also’, because there are just so many of these things that pop up and under maybe any other circumstances, this would be annoying as hell. But here? Here, it’s like “the more, the merrier!” And that alone is kind of an amazing feat: the book does not, for one second, feel boring – but it also doesn’t feel overcaffeinated. It is perfectly paced for a joyous adventure of a ride.
Cantero sets the novel up to be one type of mystery and then he lets other mysteries float into the story. It’s not that he invalidates earlier mysteries (although perhaps the final twist in the epilogue might make a few moot, shall we say) but rather he makes them no longer as important because this next one is crazy! And I really have to say that I was delighted by that. Who was Ambrose Wells? Who cares – what about these letters he left? Wait, who cares about the letters: what the hell is going on with the ghost and the dreams? Forget that stuff, what about — and so on. And Cantero clearly still cares about these things, as they all get resolved in one way or another – but he allows things to rev up faster than he cares to answer and that sort of reckless abandon in the forward progress of the story is just awesome.
SPOILERS do follow. Fair warning.
I’ll attempt to be vague as I can be about the second half of the novel but I can’t not talk a little bit about the realities of the secret society that Ambrose was a part of. Because it is so freaking cool. Part game, part mysterious cult, part something-otherworldly-altogether, I just loved everything about it. Right down to the staggering realizations of the final pages. There is a moment (this is out of context but might still be a spoiler) where A. says “I. Watched. A. Skeleton. Playing. Poker.” or something along those lines and he’s talking about seeing a real thing. And the guy he’s talking to is basically like, “well, there are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio” – and the sense of wonder behind the conversation is just awesome. The idea that there are people around the world doing incredible things – even magical things – and that we could play a sort of ‘game’ to try and find them? WHOA. Sign me up. Even the scarier real-world things about this (hunting monsters, for example) are, for me, outweighed by the rush of excitement at the very thought of such a ‘game’.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I could nitpick the end and I could question some of the stylistic tics – but why? Why spoil the fun? Why not just bask in the sheer joy of a reading experience that this novel delivers? It’s almost Halloween – go do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this book and let yourself be a kid again. Enjoy all of the affectations, let yourself get caught up in it. I cracked a smile so many times throughout the course of reading this, even as I was gasping or trying to figure out puzzles on my own. Sometimes, it’s all about the happy and this book delivers creepy-spooky-magical happy in spades.