I am going to continue reading this author’s books because I always find them compelling and interesting, but I think I might have to get the next one from the library instead of buying a pricey hardcover on the back of a tasty premise. This one is making me feel saucy. I was really looking forward to this book! The premise sounded amazing, and I love reading about cults, fictional or not. But the author took it in a direction that I thought was the least interesting option.
The set-up here is that Lark (one of the POV characters) has just been “liberated” from a cult called the Fellowship of the Anointed, that he was born into. The cult teaches its members that they can do magic, and that the outside world is corrupted by monsters, which they are trained intensively to hunt. But Lark’s partner Kane has been talking to the FBI, and there’s a raid, and Lark’s whole world is thrown into chaos. He refuses to believe the truth and takes off. He wants to to slay the monsters and get his life back. We also get POV from Lark’s sibling Deryn, flashback POV from Kane, and POV from an outsider named Calvin, who is a professional cosplayer who gets wrapped up in Lark’s quest because he wants magic to be real. All of this makes for a fascinating cocktail of story possibilities.
As with his first book, I very much appreciate the way that Szpara is able to paint a morally grey landscape and allow his characters to move around in it. I also thought the writing itself was improved, tighter in focus, and with sharper dialogue. I liked all the characters. In fact I quite liked the first half of the book before it became apparent all the things I was wanting from the story weren’t going to be there at the end. I loved the juxtaposition of the cult member who was a true believer set loose on the world, colliding with a normal who badly wanted to escape the real world. There was a dizzying amount of opportunity baked right into that. I wasn’t satisfied by the result.
My first complaint is a personal one that I always have that nearly no one else will have, and that’s that I wanted more details. Like, an excessive amount of details that I recognize probably isn’t necessary or actually important to the arc of the story. I want to know everything about this cult and what the outside world thinks of it! I want to see theories and people arguing about it. I want to see what other people think of the members. I wanted to see the investigation into them, what the difficulties were, how they strategized, how they plan to deprogram the members and prosecute the leaders. I want to know why the leader started it (this I think is an actual hole in the narrative). I wanted more of what cult life was like. Etc.
The rest is going to have to be in spoiler tags.
SPOILERS My second issue is that about a third of the way through you start getting hints that this is going to be one of those annoying books where it can go either way on whether or not the magic (or whatever) is actually real. I just think that’s uninteresting at this point, first of all. It’s been done. Second, toeing that line, or even going as far as to say magic is real (which I think the book does do!) completely undercuts what I thought was so great about this premise. The culture shock, the intense juxtaposition, is nearly gone if magic is real. I just found it boring, especially in comparison to what could have been there instead.
Also, I found the actual end of the quest to be inane. The “monster” makes zero sense if it is actually a monster. If it is a hallucination on Lark’s part, he needs professional help from a licensed therapist. I also found it highly unlikely that first of all, a) that many people would be pulling for Lark instead of turning him in (the author could have made this work with more context for the cult in the outside world, I think), and b) that the cops wouldn’t have just pushed past them. I mean, they blocked every entrance and exit to the freeway for how long? It was just too much for me.
And finally, Lark’s emotional arc to “wake up” or whatever in my opinion ends in a cop out. We “see” his final acceptance that his life has been built on lies through the eyes of another character, but we only know that in hindsight when Lark tells us in the next chapter that’s what was going through his head. We needed to see that moment! It was the most important moment in the book! END SPOILERS
Worth noting that there are explicit depictions of sex, abuse, rape, and abusive sadomasochism in this book. The author comes from a fanfic writing background where there is no curtain to pull back behind, and you see everything good and bad, so that’s what you see here, too. It can be jarring if you’re not used to it, and it’s certainly not the norm for traditional publishing. I thought some of those scenes weren’t necessary and the book would have been better without them, but I thought some were. YMMV.
All in all, an interesting experiment that I read super quick and that entertained me, but that I ultimately wish was a different book.