This wasn’t a bad book. The writing was good enough that I blew through it in about 3 sittings and I wanted to keep reading, so there’s that. But I was disappointed. And I feel guilty that I was disappointed, especially since Lavalle is a talented writer and a lot of things in this story worked really, really well. But there was also a lot that didn’t, at least for me. I can’t appropriately talk about this book without spoilers, so stop reading here if you think you want to give this a shot.
the Changeling follows Apollo Kagwa, a rare books dealer, and his wife, Emma Kagwa, a librarian, as they start their family in Washington Heights, NYC. The time is literally this year, 2017. We get a kind of idea that not all is well with Apollo’s past since his dad literally disappeared one day and Apollo has a lot of nightmares about his dad coming back and trying to take him away. But nothing’s very certain. Emma and Apollo have baby Brian, and all seems to be going the normal, exhaustive way that most early parenting does. Apollo is even a ‘new’ dad, who’s totally hands-on with his infant son and takes him on his book sojourns in the baby bjorn so Emma can continue working at the library. So this all looks like it’s on the up-and-up until Emma starts getting weird photos of baby Brian on her phone that neither she nor Apollo have taken. The problem is, the pictures don’t stay on her phone. She sees them and then they disappear. Apollo starts worrying that she’s got postpartum depression, and she goes and gets meds. They don’t help, the relationship gets strained and brittle as Emma begins to believe that baby Brian isn’t her baby. Baby Brian has been replaced, but she has no proof.
SPOILER – she goes stark raving bonkers, knocks Apollo out, chains him to a kitchen chair and then kills baby Brian. She then disappears into thin air and no one knows where she went. When Apollo wakes up from this whole thing he goes on a rampage trying to find her and this is where the book started to fall apart for me. Apollo and his co-worker, Patrice, find a very rare and expensive copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and they get a buyer on the internet. So they meet with him to do the exchange, and he makes this weird show of taking them out on a little yacht to do it, and then basically unloads all his family baggage on these two strangers. His wife left him, something happened to his baby daughter, he’s a lonely computer programmer and he’s buying the book as a present to try to get his wife back. There are emotions. Our booksellers are a bit weirded out by the whole thing, but this dude’s paying them a crap ton of money, so they stick around and end up feeling empathy towards his situation.
Turns out baby Brian’s murder was nationally televised and Mr. Crazy-pants book buyer wants to help Apollo find his wife because he totally understands what it’s like to have your family torn apart. They track Emma to this random abandoned island off the Manhattan coast, and Mr. Crazy-pants book buyer yachts Apollo out to the island where SPOILER, he’s immediately assaulted by Amazonian-like guards who try to drown him/beat him to death/take him to their leader when all that fails. Apollo’s basically found the 2017 version of Themyscira and it’s run by a woman named Cal. She tells Apollo a fairy story and basically alludes to the fact that they’re real, and yes, baby Brian was replaced. He was a changeling, and if Apollo doesn’t believe her, he should totally go dig up his son’s grave and take a good look at the body. Also, Emma’s no longer on the island, so he’s out of luck. During this time, it turns out that Mr. Crazy-pants book buyer is SPOILER the actual big bad of the book, and he only wanted to help Apollo because he had a feeling his wife went to the same place as Emma. And apparently he transforms into some kind of monster. Maybe. It’s unclear, and Apollo just wants the eff off this island.
So using the wonders of 2017 technology, Apollo enlists Patrice to help him dig up his son’s grave at 2 a.m. Because at this point, why not? Low and behold, his son’s body is literally just a pile of sticks and leaves, so yes, Changeling. So now Apollo knows Emma was right, and she and his son are out there in the big city somewhere. He and Patrice do some internet sleuthing/research, find out Mr. Crazy-pants book buyer is related to some dude up in Queens. So Apollo goes to Queens, where he finds Mr. Crazy-pants books buyer’s Viking dad.
Long story short, Viking dad reveals through several chapters of dialogue and the continuous boiling of sheep’s head (don’t ask) that there’s a straight-up Norwegian troll living in Queen’s North Park and children are its favorite snack. So this particular Viking family’s job is to find children to give to the troll and replace them with magical changelings although the motive is pretty ambiguous. So Mr. Crazy-pants book buyer is the guy who replaced baby Brian and totally gave him to the troll. Apollo takes to this information like any sane human and stabs Viking dad to death, because it makes total sense to kill the person who’s giving you all the information that might help you later.
Apollo goes to North Park and finds Emma camped out in front of a giant cave because her mother’s intuition knows that her baby is in there. But she’s in bad shape since she’s been living out in the elements for 4 months. Apollo coaxes her back to Viking dad’s house, where they basically camp out and recover for a few hours (with Viking dad’s body downstairs, but whatever). While there, they discover that Crazy-pants book buyer is in the basement on a giant computer system that he’s set up to hack every ipad, laptop, smart TV, and computer screen in America looking for children. And because he’s totally f*cked up, he has started a business where he lets perverts pay a fee to spy on these children and their families, and then watch the child’s inevitable destruction at the claws of said Norwegian troll.
Emma and Apollo kill him too, because again, it’s a great idea to kill the people who have all the information that could help you, find the back door into the cave and go on a mission to rescue their son. They find him, but the troll swallows the kid whole, leading the parents to kill the troll and literally remove baby Brian from the troll’s stomach in a gruesomely epic last battle. And then they go home covered in troll slime. Baby Brian’s still alive, though, so it’s cool.
The Good, the Bad, and the Conclusion
First and foremost, Lavalle is a talented writer, and I’m totally going to check out some of his other books to see if they work for me. In the Changeling I can see the scenes unfolding before me and I love, love, love his main characters. Apollo and Emma and awesome, and maybe part of my hatred for this plot is that terrible things happen to them that they don’t deserve. And as wacko as the plot is, Lavalle does build it, and nothing *technically* comes out of left field. He foreshadows appropriately, correlates enough points for the linear arc, and wraps up the loose ends in a nice bow. The literary fiction portion of this story was super enjoyable.
We’re just never really ready for the magic. There are hints and foreshadows and some serious beating around the folklore bush, but until Apollo digs up the stick baby, we have no idea if this is all real, or if characters have just been doing a lot of acid. Also, none of our main characters seem particularly open or entrenched in the possibilities of the magic, so they fact that they’re not looking for it, it’s then thrust upon them, and then they just take it for what it is, seemed highly improbable. Emma and Apollo’s murdering rampage at the end also feels really out of character. Yes, they’ve gone through a lot, and yes, now there’s magic involved and that changes a person, but their actions in the last 3rd of the story didn’t seem to fit their personalities.
And then there’s the troll and the magic itself. It was a neat idea, and bringing in Norweigian folklore was kind of cool, but Apollo’s heritage is from Uganda, and Lavalle spends a lot of time in the beginning of the book building this bridge to Apollo’s Ugandan roots, so I was totally thrown for a loop when the magical part of the story comes from Norway. Not to mention that we get zero mentions of this troll, or anything vaguely Norwegian at all until the last third of the book, even though the magic starts popping up at about the halfway mark. I was just not prepared for giant Viking troll.
I haven’t read anything else by Lavalle, so I don’t know what his normal genre is, but this book struck me as a brilliant literary fiction writer who was playing around with some fantasy, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. It wasn’t terrible, parts of it were very enjoyable, and it was a fast read. But I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re reading it for the magical aspects.
2 stars for good writing, but -3 for bad fantasy building.