“That’s the risk in working to be a dangerous person […] there’s always the chance you’ll run into someone who’s better at it than you”
This was truly unlike any other contemporary fantasy I have ever read, as I think the best word I could use to describe it would be “bonkers”… and I mean that in the best possible way. The story primarily follows Carolyn, a women who, along with 11 other children, was abducted in her youth by a man who they refer to as Father (who may or may not be God, or an alien, or something else entirely). He possesses an infinite library that contains countless books which he has filled with all the world’s knowledge, and tasks each child with mastering a specific subject, be it medicine, natural life, war, or in Carolyn’s case: language. Now as an adult, she employs the help of a relatively unassuming man named Steve for exactly $327,000, all the while keeping her true motives very vague to him as well as the reader, and he quickly becomes caught up in a existential conflict beyond his comprehension. Containing a violent tutu-wearing psychopath, a god-like tiger, and countless instances of resurrection (just to name a few of its’ oddities), this debut novel by Scott Hawkins was an unnerving imaginative delight that consistently kept me on my toes and eager to see what he gives readers next.
Much like the book as a whole, Carolyn was a very strange, but very likable protagonist. One moment she could be playful and compassionate, and the next be absolutely terrifying, and as a reader I was unsure as to whether or not she was trustworthy during a large portion of this novel, which made for a very interesting reading experience. I also loved how creative Hawkins was in exploring Carolyn’s intimate and expansive knowledge of language, going beyond just human language to that of animals and even the language of weather as well. Her strange combination of brilliance and unpredictability made her a unique and gripping protagonist, which was very effectively accentuated by her dynamic with my favorite character: Steve. He very much acted as a stand-in for the reader, taking in all this new craziness with the perfect balance of skepticism and open-mindedness, but he still had a very likable and distinct personality of his own. He was funny, emotional, loyal and inquisitive, and I really appreciated how organic it felt in how he struggled between running as far as he could from all this insanity and seeing it through to the end. I especially enjoyed his relationship with a Lion named Nagasaki, which is a sentence that sounds very strange out of context, but believe me when I say that it doesn’t make a lot of sense incontext either. The supporting cast was also great, with Carolyn’s aforementioned tutu-wearing psychotic brother David being a stand-out in how completely detestable and frightening he was.
The over-all story was very entertaining, and had a very distinct tone achieved by borrowing from several genres outside of fantasy, including horror, mystery and science-fiction. It consistently had me speculating about the possible answers to the numerous questions I accumulated over the course of the novel, and more often than not, I wasn’t even close. But I love a book that is able to genuinely surprise me at multiple points like that! I’d say that the biggest issue I had with this novel was that the pacing in its’ first half felt pretty slow, but it really hit its’ stride in the second half and I could barely put it down until the very end. I guess the best comparison for the book would be to say that its’ like a roller-coaster: as you’re going up that hill nothing has really happened yet but the tension is building and building until you hit that drop, at which point it’s nothing but heart-racing action and fear with every twist, flip and turn.
When I finally turned the final page of this novel I still had several questions left unanswered, but I think I just need to accept that in a story as wild and cosmically vast as this, I was never going to get all the answers I wanted, and that’s probably for the best. The mystery and absurdity of this book were by far its’ greatest strengths and I truly can’t recommend it enough to fantasy readers who are looking for something unique and memorable in the contemporary sub-genre. 4.5/5