Friday, October 25, 2013

NOS4A2 (Joe Hill)

Joe Hill's newest novel, NOS4A2, has a premise that sounded kind of familiar to me. There's a serial killer with strange space-time manipulation capabilities, a victim who manages to escape, and a build-up to a confrontation between the two sometime later. In its plainest description, it sounded a lot like Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls (though NOS4A2 was published a few months before). Fortunately for me, Hill's book is much better.

Victoria McQueen, variously called Vic and the Brat, has a special talent. She can ride her bike across the Shorter Way Bridge, a structure from her childhood that no longer stands; it takes her to places that aren't on the other side of where the bridge once stood. She uses it to find things, things that have gone missing. As a child, it's innocent enough--she finds her mother's lost bracelet, a photo of her friend.

But then we jump forward to bad-teen Vic, who, in an effort to irritate her mother, rides the bridge to find trouble. And she does, in the form of Charles Manx. Manx has similar powers of space-time manipulation, but he uses it to "save" troubled children. He kidnaps them and takes them to his imaginary haven, Christmasland, which exists only in his mind. He can take them there with his classic Rolls-Royce Wraith. Vic encounters him and barely escapes, rescued by a man on a motorcycle named Lou Carmody.

And then we jump ahead a little too fast--Lou and Vic have a son (Bruce Wayne Carmody), Vic is slowly going insane because obviously she's traumatized, Vic gets locked up and loses custody of her child, she ends up in rehab and finally this overly-forward motion grinds to a halt when Vic and her son end up spending the summer together at a peaceful New England cottage.

Except Manx is back from the dead and now he wants revenge for Vic's escape so he grabs Wayne and, in the Rolls-Royce, heads off to Christmasland. So it's a battle against time as Vic struggles to pull everything together and follow him, using the Shorter Way Bridge to stop her son from ending up a soulless creature like Manx's previous victims.

It's all very exciting and action-packed and mobile, which is a sort of terrible pun involving how the whole book is deliriously readable and filled with cars and motorcycles, too. But that doesn't mean that it's a perfect creature. Certainly I was incredibly fascinated with the concept of the Shorter Way and inscapes. It's very interesting and well-explained but still mystic enough to be other.

There's always an issue that comes up in books where characters discover strange powers: how does the author handle it? Does the character spend a lot of time marvelling or denying them? Does she straight-forwardly accept them? What happens instead is a very interesting acceptance as a child that older Vic writes off as dreams and later delusions of mental instability that she can quickly--and nervously--re-accept as truth even if it makes her feel insane. Even the way in which other characters come to terms with these imaginary-but-real inside worlds is handled stellarly. Good work, Joe.

The best part is the beginning of the book, which manages to cover Vic's childhood discovery of power, tell us Manx's backstory/motivation, and introduce two of my favorite characters from the book: Bing Partridge, Manx's horrifying assistant who manages to be more horrifying and less menacing than Manx all at once, and Margaret Leigh, a woman who can access the inscape through her Scrabble tiles.

And of course there are Vic and Manx, both of whom are well-developed and interesting without a doubt. Not to be too referential, but that was one of my issues with Shining Girls--I felt like I didn't know much about the villain or the protagonist and I didn't particularly care about them. That wasn't the case in this book at all, even if in the too-fast bridging (OMG I am full of NOS4A2 puns tonight) section makes some questionable choices with Vic's characterization: she's unstable, she does a lot of drugs and drinking, she gets tattoos because she's so alternative (okay, this is totally my own personal bias, sorry). I was pretty annoyed with Vic during that part of the novel because her characterization was, I feel, a little lazy.

The story is a long one. According to my Kindle, it's about 700 pages long, and at times it feels its length heavily. There's a lot of stuff crammed into this tale, almost too much: nerd culture pops up several times, as well as explorations of self-loathing (in various forms), police culture and spirit grandmothers. I would have appreciated less tangents and maybe more descriptions of the magical Christmasland, since it's the center of much of the book and the scene of the climax.

I don't know. I did like it, but the author occasionally made some choices I didn't feel were best. Some of the greatest characters are cut out too early for don't get enough page-time, even if they could have (and should have) had more. Scenes with Wayne in the Wraith with Manx were delicious, but not as exploratory as I wanted them to be. Tell us more about Wayne's transformation, make him mess with the car a little more. You had my interest!

But Joe Hill's NOS4A2 is still a darn good book, never you worry. And it's hard to find someone it won't appeal to (so long as they're adults and not weirded out by weird stuff).

My rating: 4/5
NOS4A2 on Goodreads
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