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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: Fortitude (Season 2)

April 24, 2017

The first season of Fortitude was a glorious achievement in genre television, so it’s unsurprising that its sequel year doesn’t quite match up. Even so, it does shift the series in new and different directions, and ultimately remains impressive, providing a superb mix of small-town mayhem, science-based mystery, and gruesome horror.

As the year begins, Fortitude is still recovering from its recent traumas, and it’s an epic struggle. The island’s erstwhile sheriff, Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), has gone AWOL, leaving the tiny police force in the hands of inept deputy Eric Odegard (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). The government in Norway, in a vote of no-confidence, has saddled governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) with a scheming new advisor, Erling Monk (Ken Stott). Meanwhile, key members of the community are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, handling the loss and turmoil of the recent past in numerous unhealthy ways. With nerves on edge, limited law enforcement resources, and Monk’s officious interference, Fortitude is woefully ill-equipped to handle a new, rapidly escalating crisis: a series of brutal murders that may or may not be tied into ancient spiritual rituals, a bizarre drug subculture, nefarious goings-on at the science research center, or a complex combination of the above.

One of the masterful aspects of Fortitude’s first year was the way it walked the line between the scientific and the supernatural; as the gripping mystery unfolds, it keeps the viewer guessing as to the true source of town’s terrifying evils. Since the question appears definitively resolved by season’s end, I was surprised to see this edgy ambiguity successfully restored in season two. It keeps Fortitude squarely in Twin Peaks/X-Files territory, which is an effective and compelling space for it. On the other hand, it thrusts the series toward new extremes of gorey, shocking violence, leaning heavily into more standard horror tropes and tactics. This adds plenty of suspense and surprise, but also elevates the camp factor, somewhat to the show’s detriment.

It also lacks the structural finesse of season one, weaving a more complex web of subplots. It’s a bit of a kludge, but it’s certainly a fascinating kludge. One thread involves a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman named Michael Lennox (Dennis Quaid), battling financial worries and concern for his wife Freya (Game of Thrones’s Michelle Fairley), who is slowly dying of an incurable disease. Another involves Hildur’s political jousting with Monk, which finds her investigating a scientific mystery that dates back to World War II, and puts her on the scent of a diabolical new conspiracy. Yet another involves an inscrutable new scientist at the research station, Dr. S Khatri (Parminder Nagra). And then, of course, there’s the primary murder mystery, in which the police struggle to make sense of a new string of horrific killings. Somehow, all these disparate threads weave together, and it does add up to something complex and engaging, if not quite as refined and neat.

Still, gripes aside, I suspect fans of the first season will find it eminently watchable, and engrossing for all its rough edges. It still has the stunning cinematography, memorable vistas, and unique international flavor. It still has the compelling intrigue, unsettling ambience, and nerve-tingling suspense. The cast, anchored by an increasingly demonic Dormer and increasingly sympathetic Gråbøl, is rock solid, and many of the first season’s survivors stand out thanks to the show’s unflinching look at the after-effects of trauma. Particularly noteworthy characters are romance-under-fire scientists Natalie Yelburton (Sienna Guillory) and Vincent Rattrey (Luke Treadaway), and earnest, overwhelmed constables Ingrid Witrey (Mia Jexen) and Petra Bergen (Alexandra Moen). The newcomers add plenty of new dramatic fireworks, with Ken Stott’s bloviating bureacrat Monk often stealing the show. Quaid struck me as odd casting at first, but eventually integrates nicely into the ensemble, while Nagra elevates a necessarily cryptic character with riveting presence.

All things considered, Fortitude’s second season only falls short when held up against its own rigorous standard. It’s still a remarkable show, addictive, intense, and absolutely unique. Brutal as the island is, I hope we get to see more of it.


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Fantasy, Fiction

Novella: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

April 3, 2017

The best satire succeeds by getting at certain truths. Perhaps nobody working in the genre has a better grip on this notion than James Morrow, who’s made a career of irreverently skewering the foibles of humanity. His forthcoming novella The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (Tachyon Publications, June 2017) is the latest ingenious example of his work, an inventive historical fantasy that layers slick, intelligent humor over a bedrock of serious antiwar critique.

In the summer of 1914, American artist Francis Wyndham takes a job as an art therapist at Träumenchen, an asylum in the fictional western European country of Weizenstaat. As it turns out, the man running the asylum, Dr. Alessandro Caligari, is an artist in his own right — and also a sorceror, callously capitalizing on the martial fervor of early twentieth century Europe. One of his paintings has the power to brainwash soldiers into a feverish lust for battle, a “service” Caligari soon begins selling to both sides in the Great War. Wyndham quickly falls for one of his art students, Ilona Wessels, who displays similar talents for magic. Together with the other patients and employees of the asylum, they hatch a conspiracy to destroy Caligari and hopefully put an end to the War to End All Wars.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a fast, funny book, which might make it easy to mistake for disposable entertainment. But under its zany surface, Morrow has seeded a sad, heartfelt message about the “transcendently meaningless” cost of war, perfectly situated against the backdrop of World War I. The art-magic worldbuilding is creative and well rendered, and those familiar with the era will enjoy the guessing game of determining whether the novella is a secret history or an alternate one. Brilliantly walking the line, its zippy energy camouflages a surprisingly powerful resonance. It’s yet another seriocomic triumph from one of the genre’s best satirists.

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Fantasy, Film, Science Fiction

Film: Spectral

April 2, 2017

Netflix original film Spectral (2016) possesses a veneer of respectability, but ultimately it’s disposable, the kind of movie you only half-watch. Blending science fantasy, horror, and military action, it’s reasonably well produced and professionally acted, but mostly a bland, familiar-feeling melange.

During a future conflict in Moldova, a brilliant DARPA engineer named Clyne (the underrated James Badge Dale) is sent into the warzone to help the military make sense of the strange apparitions being picked up on the vision-enhancing goggles he invented. The locals think it’s the spirits of the dead, haunting the war-torn landscape; CIA officer Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) thinks it’s a new enemy cloaking technology. Clyne refuses to pick a theory, determined instead to gather scientific evidence and reveal the truth. To that end, he and Madison embed with a military patrol to put themselves in the path of the spectral entitities and figure out what they are — if they can survive.

Spectral certainly looks okay, with reasonably good special effects, geographic verisimilitude, and convincing futuristic tech. Better is the acting, led by the capable Dale and Mortimer, and classed up even further by the likes of Clayne Crawford, Bruce Greenwood, and Stephen Root. But make no mistake, Spectral is a Sy-Fy movie on a Netflix budget. The mediocre action-adventure script is clearly elevated by the performers, especially Dale, who can play the smartest guy in the room with the best of them. Mortimer, meanwhile, possesses an assured presence, not to mention a spotless American accent. Alas, the story is simplistic A-to-B action, and the tone is super-serious, suggesting profundity unwarranted by the material. It’s distractingly unconvincing that Clyne, a civilian, should enter this high-stakes situation and immediately show himself to be more capable, resourceful, and cool under file than the experienced soldiers and intelligence agents in his midst. Not helping matters at all is the fact that for a film set in the future, Spectral is sociopolitically stuck in the past, with only one female character and a homogenously male military. An earnest effort, on some levels, but ultimately it works best as background noise for household chores.

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Fantasy, Television

TV: The Returned

March 27, 2017

Slow-building supernatural mysteries can be a double-edged sword: explain too little and there’s no payoff, explain too much and the intrigue is demystified. The French series The Returned (Les Revenants) (2012, 2015) is an effective example of how to walk that line, a brooding and atmospheric ensemble piece that powerfully blends potboiling horror with spiritual allegory.

It takes place in a small alpine town riddled with tragic history, including a school bus accident that claimed the lives of many local children. The drama begins when one of that accident’s victims, Camille (Yara Pilartz), turns up on her family’s doorstep ten years later, miraculously back to life at the same age she died. Camille’s family — mother Claire (Anne Consigny), father Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot), and older sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) — are shocked, of course, but Camille is just as confused, with no memory of her death, and no understanding of what has happened to her. She turns out to the be tip of an iceberg, however, as other “returned” start showing up to haunt the town’s citizens. Among them are suicides, the murdered victims of a cannibalistic serial killer, and the many, many dead of a massive dam collapse thirty-five years in the past. It’s a vast, inexplicable mystery that comes to consume the entire town, living and dead alike, and it seems to revolve around an inscrutable, haunted little boy named Victor (Swann Nambotin).

Considering the glut of zombie show on television these days, The Returned may seem like one too many for some viewers, especially considering its glacial pacing. But it’s a quiet, almost literary take on the concept, more invested in thematic subtext than grizzly horror tropes. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a potently creepy atmosphere throughout, and indeed it’s punctuated by moments of graphic terror. But these genre components are deployed sparingly in favor of subdued human (and undead) drama. The first season in particular builds a masterful, compelling ambience, raising intriguing questions and delivering ambiguous but strangely satisfying answers. The finale delivers some epic imagery and resonates powerfully past its final moments.

The momentum slows considerably in season two, unfortunately, when the strain of sustaining the complexly spun supernatural lore starts to show. Indeed, the second season is, on some levels, unfavorably reminiscent of Lost, another series that gripped its viewers with early mysteries it couldn’t hope to successfully resolve. Even so, its season (and most likely series) finale does a commendable job tying together the narrative threads in a thematically satisfying package.

By then, perhaps some of the shine has worn off, but in my view the emotional philosophizing of the final hour is really the one logical way for the story to have played out. It’s executed in a classy, satisfying manner that leaves just enough ambiguity to provoke thought. Ultimately, The Returned is another worthy descendant of Twin Peaks, a compelling ensemble drama where the geography is the creepiest character. In my view it doesn’t quite match up to Fortitude or The Kettering Incident, but it is effectively of a piece with them, if not an influence. Fans of this kind of show likely won’t be disappointed with The Returned.

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Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction

Collection: Slipping by Lauren Beukes

March 21, 2017

Single-author collections can sometimes feel like side projects, perhaps merely of ancillary interest in an author’s oeuvre. This isn’t the case with Lauren Beukes’ Slipping: Stories, Essays & Other Writing (2016), a bold, impressive record of her work’s unique energy and versatility.

Over the course of four novels, Beukes has developed a reputation for shifting effortlessly into new and different gears, her genre work running the gamut from post-cyberpunk SF to gritty urban fantasy to horror-tinged police procedural. Slipping reveals even more modes, a blend of traditional and experimental pieces that span multiple genres. Those early futuristic chops shine through in tales like “Branded,” which depicts a future in which corporate sponshorship mashes up with body modification, and the slick, prescient cyberjournalism tale “Riding with the Dream Patrol.” “Confirm/Ignore” is a sort of contemporary fiction that riffs on the notion of social media as vehicle for generating alternate realities, a before-its-time spin on the notion of Internet complicity in post-truthism. Just as engrossing are the more traditional SF stories like “The Green,” a vividly imagined colony world scenario, or “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs,” an inventive, manga-inspired adventure with a humorous, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The non-SFnal tales are sociopolitically charged. The funny, fantastical “Princess” is a saucy, feminist reimagining of “The Princess and the Pea,” while more scathing glimpses of gender issues tinge the biting horror of “My Insect Skin” and the quietly creepy stalking plotline of “Parking.” Then there’s “Dear Mariana,” a clever epistolary of relationship horror that deploys a playful formal conceit.

Most of Beukes’ work brandishes the sharp edge of critique, targeting social injustice, gender inequality, and media manipulation, among other topics. When late in the volume the content switches over to non-fiction, the underpinnings of the author’s worldview come more into focus, while also illuminating her approach to fiction. Most striking of these is “Adventures in Journalism,” which paints a picture of Beukes’ journalistic roots and how they inform her creative process. There are also powerful pieces regarding her novel research: “All the Pretty Corpses” (The Shining Girls) and “Inner City” (Zoo City). The non-fiction selections are an effective touch to end the collection, highlighting the uniquely effective power of Beukes’ varied prose: her non-fiction effortlessly elevates real-life scenarios to the feel of heightened-reality legend, a reversal of the way so much of her fiction seems to be digging at a larger truth. I knew going in that Beukes was a powerfully talented wordsmith; Slipping broadened my appreciation more than I was expecting. Very highly recommended.

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New Review in the February 2017 Lightspeed

February 1, 2017

It’s the first of the month, which means a new issue of Lightspeed is out! This month’s stellar lineup includes fiction by Ian R. MacLeod, Jack Skillingstead, Seanan McGuire, and Kelly Barnhill, among others. My contribution is a review of the brilliant science fiction TV show Black Mirror. (If you haven’t watched this show yet, you should, especially since we’ve all been living in an episode since the election.)

My review will be available for free online later this month, but there’s nothing keeping you from buying an ebook copy now — or better yet, subscribing to support this excellent magazine.

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Fantasy, Television

TV: The Good Place (Season 1)

January 23, 2017

The era of Peak TV may be dominated by dark visions, but fortunately there’s still room for upbeat fare like The Good Place, an unusual, smart, and effervescent genre comedy about the afterlife. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in Heaven, which turns out to be a bright, relentlessly pleasant neighborhood full of pristine people with spotless track records from their former lives. As the village’s architect Michael (Ted Danson) explains, only the very best people get to go to the Good Place, where they’re paired with their soul mates to live out eternity in perpetual happiness. Everything would be great, except that the Good Place seems to have confused Eleanor with someone else. She’s actually a pretty terrible person who totally doesn’t belong in Heaven, a fact that starts to unravel the very fabric of the afterlife.

In some respects a conventional sitcom, The Good Place has a unique feel thanks to playful fantasy worldbuilding. Anything can happen in this malfunctioning, malleable corner of the afterlife, and so of course it does, quite unpredictably. Unlike creator Michael Schur’s other work like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the show doesn’t generate laugh-out-loud moments so much as sustain a pleasant, happy grin. Its twenty-odd minutes go by very quickly thanks to a speedy pace and jam-packed plotting, which culminates in an ingenious finale. Kristen Bell is terrific in the lead; indeed, this may be the perfect vehicle for her. But she’s matched step for step by William Jackson Harper, who plays her frustrated ethics professor soul mate Chidi, and Danson, whose sitcom timing is as strong as ever. Jameela Jamil, D’arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinta provide consistently amusing support. Great show that deserves a lot more eyeballs, and hopefully a renewal. We could use a few more insightful shows about ethics these days.

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Collection: Collected Fiction by Hannu Rajaniemi

January 23, 2017

Hannu Rajaniemi is a remarkable writer. Even at his most difficult — for sometimes, indeed, he’s a tricky writer to process — he’s certainly one of the field’s most inventive and interesting voices. Collected Fiction (2015) is a vibrant mix of his various genre stories, uneven in quality, but breathtaking in range and scope. The pieces don’t always connect but when they do, it’s stunning, and even when they don’t, it’s difficult to deny the author’s relentless creativity.

Rajaniemi is known primarily for complex futuristic SF full of brain-twisting ideas and quirky neologisms, so for me one of the surprises of Collected Fiction is that it shows his signature style to be just one of many. Indeed, he writes effectively in more conventional modes: more traditional SF, contemporary fantasy, even the tinge of dark horror. Most successful of these, I think, are “Fisher of Men,” an evocative contemporary fantasy about a man who encounters sirens and sea gods along the coast of Finland, and “Paris, In Love,” a charming, fantastical short-short about requited love between a man and a city. “Satan’s Typist” is a snarly, clever horror short, and there are other intriguing experiments on display, like the Twitter microfictions of “Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories” and a text iteration of “Snow White Is Dead,” one of several possible results of a “choose-your-own-adventure” fiction piece designed to react to human brainwaves while read with a brain-machine interface.

But Rajaniemi is at his most impressive when inventing truly visionary science fictional futures, which at times he does with such effortless, future-shocky disorientation that it almost feels like the work of an SF writer from the future, working from an advanced science fictional playbook. One of his earliest stories, “Shibuya No Love” — which I had the good fortune of sifting out of the Futurismic slushpile when I was an editor — shows glimpses of the future worldbuilding brilliance that would turn up in stories like “Deus Ex Hominie,” “His Master’s Voice,” “Elegy for a Young Elk,” and “The Jugaad Cathedral.” These stories defy easy synopsis, but dazzle with colorful language, eye-popping visuals, and more ideas per page than most writers pack into an entire novel.

In its comprehensiveness, Collected Fiction has its share of weaker, merely good entries, and to be fair it loses some steam late in the volume. But it’s still an impressive record of one of the field’s most distinctive, ambitious, and restlessly creative voices.

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Fantasy, Fiction, History, Science Fiction

Novel: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

November 29, 2016

Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair (2016) is a striking and ambitious book, a steampunk alternate history that tackles tough subjects in a sprawling mosaic. Do the components all work together perfectly? In my view, not entirely, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the novel for its beautiful prose, its scope, and its mission.

It imagines an alternate timeline in which members of the Fabian Society and American missionaries purchase land in the Belgian Congo to found a new nation, Everfair, in the late nineteenth century. A democracy composed of Congolese natives, freed American slaves, and expatriates from all over the world, Everfair is conceptualized as a tolerant haven, and its disparate citizens work together to realize that vision, aided by the emergence of new steam technologies that transform their society. But the march of history throws numerous world-shaking challenges in Everfair’s path, including a world war, forcing the nation’s citizens to work tirelessly to sustain their society.

Everfair’s mosaic structure involves numerous viewpoints and short, time-gapped chapters that incrementally paint a picture — a storytelling strategy adopted, perhaps, to convey this multicultural society’s gradual progress. At times, the scattered approach makes it a difficult read; a sustained, flowing narrative is sacrificed in a favor of a cumulative impression of the setting, pieced together from the observations of a massive cast of characters over a span of decades. Fortunately, the pieces are finely rendered with beautiful prose, complex relationships, and fascinating historical detail. The novel ventures into largely unexplored corners of history, giving voice to marginalized races, genders, and sexualities against a backdrop of epic geopolitical upheavals.

It’s perhaps not the most compellingly readable novel, frequently changing focus in a manner that is occasionally distancing. But it’s also unlike any other speculative history I’ve ever read, compensating for its somewhat disjointed storytelling with other assets, especially an impressive historical reach and a hopeful political vision. Overall, an impressive debut.

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Fantasy, Fiction

Novel: Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers

September 22, 2016

Tim Powers’ track record for inventive fantasy is a long and accomplished one, and while Medusa’s Web (2016) isn’t among his strongest novels, it’s likely to scratch the itch for the author’s long-time fans. It’s a quirky and clever yarn about a uniquely dysfunctional family in Southern California, and a secret underground of occult vision junkies.

Upon the bizarre suicide of the aunt who raised them, thirty-something siblings Scott and Madeline Madden return to the odd Hollywood Hills mansion, called “Caveat,” where they grew up. They’re met icily by their reclusive cousins Ariel and Claimayne, who see them as rivals for the estate. But their aunt’s mysterious death turns out to be just the first clue in a decades-long mystery that ties into strange, occult symbols that Scott and Madeline accidentally viewed as children. These “spider” symbols cause the viewer to travel through time and temporarily inhabit other bodies — and the experience is addictive, which has created a secret Los Angeles underground of users seeking to track them down. Evidently, Scott and Madeline’s aunt is tied into this strange subculture, and her death generates a web of intrigue into which they ultimately fall.

Medusa’s Web has a nifty set-up and a memorable backdrop, and it nicely leverages the inimitable landscape and storied history of Hollywood. The characters are likeable oddballs, the dialogue is amusing, and the time-jumping plot contortions surrounding the spider visions are cleverly executed. Alas, there’s rather a missing spark of energy; it’s a slow, talky book, especially early on, and the plot takes its time developing. Momentum finally arrives and accelerates in the final act, but it takes some effort getting there. Still, it’s a fun, inventive fantasy that reminded me a little of the charming California fantasies of James P. Blaylock, as well as some of Powers’ earlier contemporary work, like Last Call.

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Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

August 23, 2016

kuboThe opening of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is so moving and magical, and the film so full of visual wonder throughout, that I was surprised by my overall impression: I was underwhelmed. An animated feature drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, the film revolves around Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives a simple, hardscrabble existence, caring for his ill mother and supporting them as the village storyteller. Kubo is a lively and imaginative boy who possesses a magical power: the ability to animate and control his origami creations. But he also has a troubled origin: he and his mother fled their mean-spirited extended family in the wake of violent conflict, which is about to be reignited. When Kubo’s evil aunts come to collect him, Kubo is forced to flee with Monkey (Charlize Theron), a statue come to life to serve as his guardian. Together they undertake a quest to recover three powerful artifacts that will protect Kubo from his horrible grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

The first twenty minutes of Kubo and the Two Strings are utterly beautiful, bursting with powerful visual story-telling and splendorous imagery. And I was more or less onboard for the duration, enjoying its engaging action setpieces and amusing dialogue. In many ways it’s a refreshing change of pace from the increasingly familiar beats and tropes of big-budget animated cinema. But there’s something missing, or many somethings: a logical basis for the item-gathering plot, a coherent thematic focus, an assured handle on its messaging. There are many elements and ideas at play, but the script struggles to pick and choose how and when to deploy them, and they don’t work in perfect harmony. That doesn’t detract from the journey’s many great moments, but there are also distancing lulls, and a muddled climax.

In the end, I’m disappointed, largely because the film doesn’t deliver on its early promise. Those beautiful early passages create such an evocative, immersive mood, and it was a shame to watch that fall away. Even so, it’s a beautifully made and charmingly different film; I’m happy to have seen it, all the same.

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Fantasy, Fiction

Novel: Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

May 30, 2016

It’s tempting to say Lydia Millet’s done it again with her novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven (2016), but that wouldn’t be entirely true. She’s written a differently great book: just as lyrical and haunting, but angrier, more despairing, and much more tightly wound. It’s a taut and disturbing psychological thriller tinged with existential horror, and it packs a mean punch.

It chronicles the ordeal of Anna, a thirtysomething woman who, with her young daughter Lena, leaves an ill-fated marriage when it becomes clear that her calculated, philandering husband Ned has no interest in her or in fatherhood. From Alaska she flees to the coast of Maine, where she takes refuge in a modest motel populated by curious, lonely characters with whom she develops a quirky rapport. This peaceful, transient life doesn’t last, however. When Ned decides to run for political office, he needs to rewrite his public narrative, and that includes having a subservient wife and smiling daughter by his side. Ned’s angling selfishness soon reveals itself as dangerous sociopathy, and Anna’s new friends may not be an adequate line of defense against what he has in store for her.

Millet has long been an astute critic of the American zeitgeist’s uglier aspects, but usually lightens her insights with snarky, smart humor. By contrast, Sweet Lamb of Heaven is unmitigated: tense, disturbing, and laced with creeping menace. It opens quietly, beautifully, as she invests the reader in Anna’s plight and Lena’s charms, but as Ned becomes more and more present in the story — even offstage, he oozes threat — the story turns into a gut-wrenching tale of suspense. It’s a convincing depiction of a psychologically abusive relationship, the kind of narrative you power through in the hopes the protagonist will experience some kind of relief. But above that layer of personal oppression is another, political one: Ned is emblematic of the corruption and money and callous power dynamics that drive American government, and the more he leverages his clout against Anna, the more horrifying it gets. It’s a piercing metaphor for political helplessness, and Millet leans into it with an unusually fierce despair.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t hope: there is, and it’s emotionally sustaining. It comes through the novel’s unexpected genre element, a kind of magic realist connection between Anna and her oddball companions that adds another layer of surreal mystery to the proceedings. This element is understated but masterful, infusing the world with a mesmerizing ambience in the vein of Philip K. Dick. It gives the novel heart, and ultimately contributes to satisfying, brow-mopping closure.

I’ve been singing Millet’s praises for years now, but this may be her most impressive work to date: a sharp, thematically rich, nerve-wracking read that smolders with suspense and blazes with insight.

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