Well, I do seem to like a challenge of late. Moving house and becoming a dad in the same fortnight? Check. Trying to read anything whilst doing the above? Check. Try to read one of the more unusual and frustrating books I've encountered in a long time and then attempt a review whist His Majesty sits next to me decided when to interrupt with either window-shattering screams or window-shattering farts? Check.
First off, though, look at that cover. No, look at it! Awesome. And it conveys so much about the story so beautifully. I thought the title a little clumsy until I realised whilst reading that this is actually a prequel to Grey-Sun's 'Eve of Light' series of books which I was unaware of. I'll be honest - whilst flicking through net galley I spotted the cover. It's sort of the way I buy wine - 'oh cool label!'. However, this policy can lead to both a nasty glass of vinegar and a dull read.
Well, Grey-Sun doesn't do dull. He doesn't avoid tediously-lengthy passages at times (more of that later), but he also rarely let up throughout this novel on passion or focus, and can pierce the mind from the page more directly than most authors I've discovered lately, particularly in sci-fi/fantasy. He might take issue with the genre tag however; he - more accurately perhaps - describes the story in his preface as Metaphysical Fantasy. This comes up within a slightly odd warning that this is NOT a Young Adult novel but a dark and complex tale involving 'the nature of Reality' and 'the Creator'. Well, I am far from a young adult (despite often acting like one) but wouldn't have found this too dark or complex; in fact, it is suited to the turbulent, obsessive and intense mind of an adolescent more than any other age.
I don't wish to knock the book by saying that. The story superbly stays within the mind of Robert throughout, its singularity of perspective suited to the self-involvement of teenage life, and, as he is a 16 year old, its landscape matches too. I've never been an African-American high-school kid in Virginia but it felt true enough to me, although given the constant opportunity to sample U.S. T.V. or film set in a high school any day or night here in Britain perhaps it just tapped into my cliche brain bank. It does though in depicting this world dwell far too long on certain elements; for instance, endless descriptions of wrestling and getting ready for wrestling and discussing wrestling. Maybe Grey-Sun likes wrestling. Maybe in the novels this precedes Robert wrestles a lot. But it's not important to the plot to the extent that we need to be left wading through the sections about it. I mention this as it is but emblematic of a wider issue of pace. Roberts journey towards revelations about himself is mysterious and purposefully slow but more intriguing character interaction would have added weight to his experiences, and instead we get a friend who we never see, various school acquaintances of minimal importance to the lead and a distant father.
However, the heart of the story and the parts that really quickened my pulse is the fantasy element, not the real world of friends and family. Throughout the body of the book we see Robert being distracted and even harmed by weird hallucinations and physical changes, which dramatically escalate two-thirds through. I sensed a superhero/mutant in the making, grounded in a world with fascinatingly-realised social, sexual and racial issues, a gentle, subtle alternate-reality (the First Lady has killed the Pres), and some great passages of adolescent soul-searching. The author also writes eloquently about both religion and music, and much of the novel flows well and feels to building to something powerful; it just takes too long to get there, and when it does, leaves confusion and a little disappointment.
Where it goes is a minefield of spoilers, so ignore this if you want to, but I should caution that you shouldn't be too excited, as the following sentence isn't exactly clear or comprehensible. SPOILER ALERT - So, basically, he has a virus that allows him to control light but also zaps his mind into other realities and communes with devil-angels and a mad giant lynx with tentacles. Kind of. I'm not much clearer than that. The final passages of the book put me in mind of Ballard, Pullman and Burroughs, and if the series that follows is anything similar, I'm in. But like a drug that kicks after the music stops, the power of these wild half-answers to the mystery was dampened as I had by this point lost too much enthusiasm. Alos, unlike, say, the revelatory, exciting cliff-hanger end to Northern Lights, this felt like it had to stop short just as it got interesting. Perhaps the main series delve more clearly into the other-worlds of a God gone mad and vengeful angel creatures. And maybe my opinion is too filtered through baby-fatigue. Dear Author, I'm so sorry if I should be giving a 9/10 here, but I'll have to trust my heart (and indeed, many others review online; I checked to make sure I wasn't losing it as much as Robert) and stick with a...
Objective Assessment : 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for detailing the mind of an unusually intelligent and interesting teen; +1 for depicting racial issues without cliche (to my mind); +1 for some truly joyously-bonkers moments at the end
Penalites: -1 for dull patches; -1 for mistaking delay of excitement for amping excitement
Nerd Coeffiecient: 7/10 An enjoyable experience but not without its flaws
Written by: English Scribbler, contributor since 2013 and tired new dad