Authors: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Publication date: May 5, 2020
Genre: fantasy, dark humor, horror
My rating: 5/5 stars
Do you like ghost stories? This book is for you!
Do you like revenge plots? This book is for you!
Do you like ragtag teams of criminals? This book is for you!
Do you like bizarre alternate versions of historical Europe? This book is for you!
Do you like dark humor and bitterly harsh realities? This book is for you!
Do you like Welcome to Night Vale? Obviously this book is for you; that’s probably what brought you to this review anyway, right?
Do you like sweet and happy endings? Dear god, please don’t read this book; find yourself something more wholesome.
This story can only turn out the way things happened. I cannot conjure a happy ending where none exists.
Like all of the content produced by Fink and Cranor, the creators of the hit podcast Welcome to Night Vale, this book is weird. Like, very weird. It probably only appeals to a very specific demographic, but–as you can probably tell from my enthusiasm already–I am a part of that demographic.
I’m a huge fan of all things Night Vale-related (though I must confess, I’m not caught up on this season yet), so naturally, I was excited about this book right from the moment I first heard about it. For those of you who are unaware, Welcome to Night Vale is a fictional podcast set in a deeply strange city somewhere in the American southwest, and a recurring side character on the show is the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. (Fun fact: on the show, she is voiced by Mara Wilson. You might know Wilson for playing Matilda in the movie Matilda back in the 90’s. Following that movie, she all but disappeared from acting; her time on WTNV is the first acting-related thing she’s done since the year 2000. The more you know!) This book is the Faceless Old Woman’s backstory, from her birth in Europe, centuries ago, through her adolescence and adult years, and up to the events that left her a faceless not-quite-ghost on another continent altogether.
First, something to clear up before I start: you can still enjoy this book even if you don’t listen to the podcast. While avid listeners will find plenty of inside jokes wrapped into this story (five-headed dragons, a man who is not tall and a man who is not short, a Brown Stone Spire, and so on), I think the narrative as a whole can be understood even by someone wholly unaware of what else exists in this strange town, because…well, the bulk of this book doesn’t take place in that town at all.
The story unfolds in dual timelines. One is in the 2000s, running up to the present, with the Faceless Old Woman speaking to a Night Vale resident named Craig, who she pokes and prods into living what seems like a happy life. She just also casually torments him along the way (the opening scene includes her burning his shoes in a trash can, for example). The other timeline starts in the 1800s, with her childhood on the Mediterranean. From a young age, she was always fascinated by the ships coming and going in the harbor outside her family’s home, especially the mysterious ships bearing a black flag with a white labyrinth logo. But then a childhood tragedy involving those ships occurs, sending her on a furious quest for revenge that wholly changes her life.
Teaming up with a band of other misfits–a giant girl who despises what society says about physically strong women, an aro-ace boy who has no interest in marrying anyone even though his wealthy family expects it, and a Jewish girl with a knack for disguises who feels most herself when pretending to be someone else–our protagonist travels from fictional countries like Svitz and Luftnarp to more familiar countries like France and Spain. The book, of course, culminates in a collision of the two timelines as the questions are finally answered:
Why does the Faceless Old Woman live in Night Vale? Why is she faceless? And what does she want?
This book was at once everything I expected and nothing like I expected. The language in it followed Fink and Cranor’s signature blend of beautiful, image-heavy, profound statements, like these:
Sadness presses into you like a shaper of clay, sculpting your spirit into the form of a blighted tree, into the form of a dilapidated monastery, into the form of an empty hand.
All loves are negotiations. We tolerate so that we may rejoice.
I saw the same terrible day repeat for me every time I closed my eyes. Memory lives inside the eyelids.
A secret feels like falling from a high rock into cold water.
…with glib, sarcastic, and absurd departures from that, like these:
You’re so content in your job writing press releases and online copy and the occasional slogan. (I know your marketing team voted you down, but I thought “Ford: You Never Chose to Be Born, But We Chose for You” was your best work yet.)
“I don’t need protecting,” I said with the absolute certainty of someone who probably does.
They were bad jokes like “What did the scorpion say to the rattlesnake?” Answer: “Wickedness is an immutable yet subjective product of our evolution.” (Night Valeans have always found great humor in the illusion of free will.)
And, in a move that summed up this entire book (and their entire Night Vale universe) in a single quote, they produced this gem:
There’s a thin line separating humor and horror, and this was that line.
Honestly, that one line sums this book up beautifully. It is so many things wrapped into one, existing in the liminal space between terms that tend to be considered separate categories. It is too funny to be a drama but too heavy to be a comedy. It is too human to be a ghost story but too spooky to be realistic. It is too weird to be taken seriously, but too serious to be waved off dismissively. The formula is tricky, but like verbal alchemists, the authors have gotten it down to as precisely scientific as an art can be.
In terms of typical book stuff, our protagonist is wonderfully complex, the pacing is remarkably smooth for a book that spans multiple centuries, and the plot managed to pull a couple twists that even I didn’t see coming. The ending was sad, but not surprising, and certainly not maudlin. The novel was, as a whole, more somber than typical Night Vale fare, but that was entirely fitting for this particular storyline and worked to its advantage. Plus, you know, I’m always here for any asexual rep we can get, and having a charming, sociable ace as a major secondary character just made it that much better. I could go on for ages, but all you really need to know about this book is that it is written well, it is written weirdly, and just because I loved it doesn’t mean you will. I’m absolutely certain that the style will put some people off, and the sheer creepiness of the Faceless Old Woman, especially in the “present-day” scenes, might make some people put the book down.
Still–I hope you will give it a try. To me, this book was awesome beyond words, and I hope that some of you out there will be able to share in my enjoyment of this bizarre beauty of a book.
Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a digital copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!