Monday 23 November 2020
Rating: 3 stars
Official book description:
For his entire life, Charley Sutherland has concealed a magical ability he can't quite control: he can bring characters from books into the real world. His older brother, Rob - a young lawyer with an utterly normal life - hopes that this strange family secret will disappear with disuse, and he will be discharged from his duty of protecting Charley and the real world from each other.
But then, literary characters start causing trouble in their city, making threats about destroying the world, and for once, it isn't Charley's doing. There's someone else out there who shares his powers and it's up to Charley and a reluctant Rob to stop them - before anyone gets to The End.
This was the September selection of my fantasy/sci-fi book club, and yet another book I've read this year where I hadn't heard of the author or book before picking it up. Only a few weeks before reading this book, I watched the new Armando Ianucci adaptation of David Copperfield, as that gave me a little bit of insight into Uriah Heep as a character and the general plot of the novel he originates in. There's a bunch of other famous literary characters who turn up over the course of the story, proving to me that taking a total of three years of English literature studies as part of my university career wasn't a complete waste of time.
Among the famous literary characters who turn up over the course of the book, we find Dorian Gray, who in this version could give Lisbeth Salander a run for her money where hacking and computer surveillance are concerned, a very temperamentally unstable Heathcliff, the White Witch of Narnia who rides a motorcycle (much easier upkeep than reindeer) and wears a motorcycle, and five different versions of Fitzwilliam Darcy (they all share a house, only one has bothered to learn how to cook). Neither of these have been read to life by Charlie, one of our protagonists, they have appeared because some reader, or the collective imagination of readers in general made them manifest. They all live in a strange, mostly hidden side street in downtown Wellington, New Zealand, where Charlie works as a university professor and his brother Rob is a lawyer.
I count Charlie as a protagonist, even though we don't actually get any chapters from his POV. He's just such a central character, and so much of the plot revolves around him and his relationship with Rob, who probably gets the most POV chapters. We also get some from Rob's fiancee Lydia, and some from the POV of Millie, a fictional character from a series of children's adventure novels who was brought out of one of her novels when Charlie was a child and managed to escape. Unusually, she's the only character who has actually aged and changed, something these creations are not supposed to do. She has a job as an accountant and works with Dorian Grey to actually get money and finance the various fictional characters on their secret street.
The fictional characters are scared because there are rumours that there are big changes afoot. Charlie and Rob discover that someone else shares Charlie's abilities and can bring fictional characters into the real world (and read them back onto the pages again as needed) and has been using several fictional characters for criminal endeavours. This individual seems to want to bring forth a fictional world to replace that of the real one, which would obviously be pretty disastrous. Since this person keeps sending people and/or creatures to kill Charlie, they figure out that it must be someone at least vaguely connected with him, and the two brothers, helped by Millie and some of the literary residents of the secret street work together to figure out the identity of the villain, and how to stop them, before it's too late.
Charlie was a prodigy who read classical works of literature when he was three and had a ph.D before he was 20. Being his older brother has always been rather exhausting for Rob, as even without the whole "being able to actually bring forth people, things, and creatures from books" thing, his brother wasn't exactly the most socially adept human being. He feels like he's both lived in the shadow of his brother's accomplishments his whole life, and constantly had to bail his brother out of trouble. Despite the advice of his parents, Rob has never told Lydia, his fiancee, anything about Charlie's special abilities, so she just knows something is seriously off, but not what he's hiding from her.
While there is absolutely the big, rather strange plot of this villainous individual who shares Charlie's powers to replace the real world with a fictional one, I would say that the most important theme of the book is the relationship between the brothers, which starts out as rather fraught and is tested in a number of ways throughout the story. They clearly care for one another very much but have never been able to communicate clearly with one another, and Rob's resentments and Charlie's poor self-esteem need to be dealt with if they're going to get through the story to the happy ending.
I was surprised when I discovered that the author behind the initials is actually a woman because it's such a male-dominated book. My favourite characters, however, were Millie and Lydia (who I thought was way too good for Rob, and should consider dumping him, even after she discovered the truth about everything and he started becoming a slightly better boyfriend). When we discussed the book in my book club, my views were shared by several of the readers, and we all felt rather disappointed once it was revealed who the actual villain of the story is, and what that individual's motives are. It just felt very anti-climactic and we wished that bit of the story had been more interesting and imaginative.
Still, this is the author's debut novel, and it's certainly unusual and a fun enough read, especially if you have a fairly wide-reaching knowledge of classical English literature.
Judging a book by its cover: Shelves and shelves of leather-bound old books, surely every book lover's dream? There's even a ladder to help you reach those books on the higher shelves, which suggests that it's a library with high ceilings. I must admit, the cover is very appealing to me. It's hard to resist a well-stocked library.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.