Friday, February 2, 2024

Novella Project: If Found, Return to Hell

When life gives you call centers, try kindness

Institutions breed call centers, with the probability of hold music hell rising with every added service the institution offers. Such webs of bureaucracy are prone to snarls and tangles, and somebody’s got to put on a headset, pick up the comb, and try to make order of it all. Yes, even if there’s magic. 

Em X Liu’s kindhearted novella If Found Return to Hell focuses on one such somebody: you, the reader. Because I do not really hold with 2nd person narration (at least, not enough to engage with it in reviews), I shall refer to this viewpoint character as Reader. Reader is a journeyman wizard for One Wizard, a massive firm whose job is to provide magic-care—like an insurance company that you call in when your magic goes wrong and you need someone to unwrong it. Naturally such calls must be received and triaged—hence the call center, and hence Reader’s job answering phones and troubleshooting wrongnesses. One day a client calls in to report a problem, and Reader makes a rookie mistake: promising to provide help that goes beyond standard One Wizard operating procedures. Upon making an actual house call to the client—a young man named Shine—Reader discovers that Shine has become possessed by a demon from Hell. Except this isn't a bad possession, as it turns out. The demon’s name is Wang Ran, and he and Shine get on well--so well that after a (surprisingly) brief period of adjustment Shine seems open to the idea of having a second person living permanently in his head and sharing control of his body. But Hell wants Wang Ran back, and One Wizard really doesn’t have any reason to take on the inter-institutional headache of fighting against Hell to support a call center lackey who should never have gotten involved in the first place. And so the struggle for freedom and self-determination against vast bureaucratic force is on. 

For a book about demon possession, this is a very warm and gentle story, full of details of family, friendship, food, and people caring about each other. Families are found, dingy little cheap apartments are made warm and comfortable and welcoming, and a great deal of comfort food is eaten. It is the mundane details of human life that attract Wang Ran as much as the freedom from Hell. He dives into projects like frying an egg, shopping for clothes, eating the dumplings that Shine’s mother made with love for her boy. He’s also rather a selfish asshole—Shine is the first to say that—but he is endearing. At least, Reader and Shine find him so.  

This is the kind of novella that is doing one very specific thing, and so its success or failure depends on how much you enjoy that kind of thing. Do you want a sweet, endearing story about the value of simple comforts, friendship, and family? A story whose villains can be reasoned with, whose faceless bureaucracies still have real people manning the phones, people who are eager to help? A story that uses the same structures in its magical world as the ones we encounter daily in our own, but allows the little people to triumph? If so, you’ll like this book. Many people did. I’ve seen lots of praise for its gentleness all over social media. 

But I myself found that its approach fell a bit short. The combination of ideas—call centers, demons, possession, hell—felt like it could have combined to make quite incisive commentary about the ubiquity of capitalist infrastructure which can poison everything—even magic. But the warmth and humanity of the characters worked against such a tale, and in so doing either undermined its indictment of bureaucratic hell, or else undermined its own world-building. It tells a tale in which an effective way to combat faceless bureaucratic inertia is through the power of individual action, personal virtue, and speaking sensibly to the people in charge. And I don’t know how many faceless institutions you’ve dealt with recently, but if that’s all it takes to get a good outcome, then One Wizard and Hell itself are a pretty weaksauce pair of institutions. And if One Wizard is instead supposed to be as intractable as State Farm, as immovable as AllState, then the outcome of this book fails to convince. Wizards and demons are fine, but believing that kindness can be as effective as it is in this story requires more magical thinking than I can muster.  

But that is because I am a jaded, curmudgeonly old fart. I hope you are soft and warm enough in your heart for this book to reach you and persuade you of the sort of magic we might bring to our own world through kindness. 



Nerd coefficient: 6/10: Still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore.

  • Call centers
  • Dumplings
  • Demons
  • Hell
Liu, Em X. If Found, Return to Hell [Rebellion Publishing, 2023].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at