One thing about advance copies--because I prefer to write a "real review" (whatever that means) for those, I try not to write about them from the middle of the book. I think this serves me poorly as a blogger, because I feel the most strongly in the middle of the book.
For example, the experience of reading M.R. Carey's Fellside
was one of picking up and putting down. It begins with a very slow and
gradual setup, and when all the pieces are in place the tension ratchets
higher and higher, to the point where it seemed like every twenty
minutes I had to put it down because I was getting myself all twisted up
with anxiety that SOMETHING BAD WAS GOING TO GO DOWN AT ANY MOMENT.
This is a very good thing in a book, usually, and here it worked in very
much the best way, because in almost every case, the bad thing did happen, and the results were worth watching.
M.R. Carey wrote The Girl with All the Gifts, a really excellent
zombie apocalypse book that came out a couple of years ago. You
probably knew that, though, because they put a little callout from that
somewhat iconic cover on the Fellside cover. While I get
it--Carey had a big hit with that book--I think it served this one
poorly. The books are very different, and the implied relationship
doesn't serve Fellside well. It works on its own merits, but not as well as Gifts, and in a very different way.
book begins with our protagonist, Jess, waking up in a hospital, badly
burned, with no idea what happened. The first part of the book takes us
through her trial and conviction for murder in the death of a neighbor
boy based on the fire she set in her apartment while high, ostensibly to
try to kill her boyfriend. (There are a lot of clauses in that
sentence. I rewrote it a few times; parse at your own risk.) Jess has
no memory, but the court proves their case and sends her to prison. Her
own guilt is worse, though, and she chooses to end her life with a
Fellside is the prison she is sentenced
to, and it's where the story really starts; everything before this is
setup--necessary, but really just the building blocks. We meet the rest
of the players--Harriet Grace, who rules the block with an iron fist;
Devlin, the guard in her pocket; Salazar, the good-hearted but weak
doctor; even the ghost of Alex, the boy Jess has been convicted of
murdering. There are a lot more characters--inmates, nurses, a few
guards, lawyers--and the best part of this book is that each one is the
center of the story from their own point of view.
read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda recently that asked about his
favorite books, and one question was about his favorite villains. His
answer was perfect: "I don't believe in villains." There are people who
are selfish and damaged and who enjoy others' suffering, it's true, but
nobody would call themselves a villain. Each of these characters is
doing what makes the most sense to them based on their own weakness and
strength and motivations.
The big exception here is
Harriet Grace--everyone else, you get deep enough into their head to see
the unique logic that drives them, but Grace is just a tyrant. We get
her backstory, which could construct her motivations, but I didn't feel
it; her combination of cold business and unnecessary rage doesn't ring
nearly as human as Devlin's petty need for power or Salazar's sad, small
fear of taking action.
But the story really hinges
around the ghost. Here's where I have to stop the deep dive for fear of
spoilers, but I will say that Alex as a vehicle for Jess's second
life--getting clean, having a purpose--is really interesting. But the
ghost, the body-leaving, the trippy, dreamlike landscape where a chunk
of the plot takes place--these things fall toward my pet peeve category
of reading long dream sequences, or drug trips, or basically out of body
experiences where any description is an impressionistic approximation
of what you're trying to describe.
And when the action
shifts to that landscape, there's a simplistic, almost fairy-tale-like
aspect to the action that feels less nuanced than this book deserves.
The shift from character-driven examination of human motivations to
"everyone gets what they deserve" in a dream landscape feels like a bit
of a cheat.
Essentially, you've got a really
compelling prison story with a heavy (and somewhat heavy-handed) ghost
subplot. They're tied together tightly; the prison story is amazing and
totally worth it; the ghost part is much weaker, but doesn't come close
to canceling out the really excellent story.
feel like this post would be better if I'd written it in the middle of
the book. But then, my full opinion wasn't formed then. I think
there's a prime window of a few hours when I'll need to write all blog
posts. I'll work on that for you.