Sunday, April 24, 2016


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.

The 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 hunger strike.

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.

I 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.

Again, I 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.

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