Review: American Elsewhere
So, we put this book on our “Best of” back in 2013 without posting a review for it. I know. Naughty us. I thought it was about time that we rectify the problem. Plus, it gave me another chance to read a Robert Jackson Bennett book. 🙂 After reading his Divine Cities series, I made a point of putting his name on my go-to list of authors to constantly check in on. Interesting story that’s actually on topic: I was having dinner with a few friends back in February. Brian McClellan (of Powder Mage fame) was part of the group and talking about how he was helping beta read Robert Jackson Bennett’s most recent work in progress. Nearly lost my stuffing. Can you say jealous? Whoa. Anyhow, I found this story on my audio book app, and the rest, as they say, is history.
AMERICAN ELSEWHERE is a stand-alone novel that feels contemporary but is… honestly, it’s just really weird. Not exactly China Mieville weird, but definitely a step in that general direction. Which is fine. I can go in for weird as long as the story is well told.
Mona Bright is on the move. She left her job as a police officer several years ago and has been traveling ever since. The story opens with her finding out that she’s recently inherited a house in a small town called Wink, New Mexico, after her father has passed away. The house itself actually belongs to her mother, who killed herself when Mona was still very young. This feels like much more than a simple windfall though because there is a part of her that very much wants to find a connection to the mother that she remembers so little about. So she shows up in court, files her paperwork, and sets off toward New Mexico.
She quickly finds out though that no one seems to know anything about the little town of Wink. Nothing found on any maps. Nothing to be gleaned from government services. Doesn’t matter where she turns, the longer she searches the more it seems like Wink doesn’t exist. Eventually she finds the place though, through sheer luck, and goes about trying to make good on her inheritance. Which is the point where the story turns from decidedly odd to undoubtedly weird as Mona learns a little more about the town, and a little bit more about her mother, and quite a bit about the town’s inhabitants.
Science Fantasy is a category that doesn’t seem to come up very often here at EBR, but this book really fits the bill. It’s a book that, while definitely founded upon aspects of the scientific, feels more like a fantasy novel. There’s just a lab and technical equipment instead of a wizard’s keep and magical talent. It deals with different dimensions and alien species and instabilities in time and space. Some detail is relayed as necessary, but for the most part it all feels very Fantasy-centered indeed.
It didn’t take very long for me to decide that I liked Mona. Her plight, her history, her determination to do this. She’s very well drawn, and when the story came through her I easily slid into the telling. POVs kind of jump all over the place though. Despite the fact that the main thrust of the story is the one told through Mona, several others get time in the hot seat. Bennett does a pretty knock up job for each of these characters. He quickly ramps us into their lives and positions in the town and how each of them adds to the oddness that is Wink. The large majority of these characters thoughseemed to be there just to be funny or to relay specific details about the town or their back story that helped to fill out the reader’s understanding a little more than might have happened just through Mona. The difficulty I had with those details though was that while the author relays the details he wants us to know, he also purposefully held back details. This allowed him to slowly reveal the mystery surrounding this messed up little town, and honestly annoyed me a little. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to this kind of stuff though. For example, having a character say something like, “No, don’t think about that!” just about kills me every time I read it.
Regardless of how much I liked Mona and her arc, I found that I really didn’t know what to think about the rest of the story. It’s mostly a story about Mona’s search to learn more about her mother and how that leads her to learning what happened to this sleepy little town and why all of that is important. The lack of a satisfying ending though made the book kind of fizzle for me in the end. Even given that, I think if the POV had been more focused on Mona that I would have liked this book significantly more.
If I had read this RJB story first, instead of the brilliant City of Stairs, I might just have put off reading more of his stuff for a while. Instead, I find myself glancing over toward my bookshelf where sits a copy of Mr. Shivers that I found recently at a second-hand bookstore, and wonder what goodness might therein lie.
The result of this read was nothing to make me second-guess my opinion of the author. Just enough though to make me shrug, put the book down, and move on.
- Recommended Age: 16+
- Language: Strong and pretty regular
- Violence: Not a lot of it, but gets pretty gory
- Sex: A handful of detailed references