Review: Chalk, by NR LaPoint
A Rabbit hole that goes straight to Dante's Inferno
Today's review is going to be a tough one, largely because it's difficult to pin down.
If you've ever read a John C. Wright novel you can see a lot of traditional fantasy stylings, as well as a tendency to go into full fantasy. Literally anything can be thrown at the reader, but by a certain point in the story, the reader doesn't even blink.
Think of any version of Alice in Wonderland where things became well and truly weird... then add chainsaws, shotguns, lightsaber, and a velociraptor with miniguns.
Chalk opens with Raven Mistcreek returning from catholic school to find her house disappeared into thin air, and the neighborhood dogs trying to kill her. So when a flying cuttlefish in a top hat tells her "Come with me if you want to live," it seems reasonable enough.
No, I'm not making any of that up. That's how the book opens. And that's before Raven Mistcreek really jumps down the rabbit hole, because the bottom of this rabbit hole isn't Wonderland, it's Hell itself. Thankfully, there are other stops along the way. Raven fits perfectly into the strange new world of magic and horrors, except she doesn't remember why, how, or anything else about her life. She has no memories, her family is missing, and the collected monsters of HP Lovecraft are out to kill her. The Dogs of War have started working for Death, and all Hell is about to break loose.
Why? Because her and her family are the key to stopping all of creation from being destroyed.
Luckily for Raven, she's not alone. Along the way, she acquires some interesting friends: a kitsune with a katana, a paladin, and a golem.
And, of course, Raven has her box of chalk. Anything she draws with chalk can come to life, and draw she does, everything form handguns to chainsaws to rifles, all of which play an important part in the story.
Before I comment on the story, let me reassure you of one thing: to start with, the "missing family" and "hero has amnesia" tropes are both resolved over the course of the book. Each element is replaced with much higher stakes than these. It's a refreshing change, since I have seen novels stretch out both tropes to a ludicrous decree (See: 90% of the plots involving Wolverine, or X-Files with a lost sister.).
The pace of this book is surprisingly, blisteringly fast. The threats are nearly omnipresent. This fantasy also has elements of a mystery, where we're given all the clues but everyone is too busy running for their lives to figure it out, like a Mickey Spillane or a John Dickson Carr. There's one new threat after another, and they stop just long enough for our heroes to figure out how to get past the next obstacle ... which usually leads to yet another running shootout, only with lightsabers.
And there's one conflict that feels very much like Dante's Inferno, but if he had shotguns. If one were to properly describe this book, it starts as Alice in Wonderland with guns, and ends in a battle that Edgar Rice Burroughs or Tolkien would have been happy to have written, complete with Knights, war unicorns, lightsaber, a Kaiju battle, and a living Lovecraft horror the size of a building.
I do enjoy these characters, even though they are slightly offputting. Our heroine is awkward, both socially and physically. She's not a physical powerhouse, or even a mental one. She's bright enough to make the plot work by coming at problems sideways in relation to everyone else, not because she can outfight anything. She's no Mary Sue. She also has extra sanity points, because she needs them.
One section of the book sums up Raven Mistcreek.
"It wasn't by willpower that I failed to despair. I simply could not conceive of a logical matrix by which despair was the victorious thought. It simply didn't make sense to me that hope could be utterly absent."
I know people who both think and talk like that.
Our Paladin, Percy Dayspring, is entertaining. He's basically carrying a lightsaber that doubles as a blaster. He and Raven make an interesting pair-- they are awkwardly adorable, but not sickeningly so.
Then there are members of Raven's family. The Mistcreek clan make Neil Gaiman's Dream family look downright tame. Her sister Ariadne feels like Wednesday Addams, only with the power of shadows. Her brother Damian is summed up in the line "Bears are protective. Damian makes Bears look like sponges."
By the end of Chalk, there is something even more refreshing to be had: long term consequences and repercussions for our heroine being our heroine, and saving the day.
The world is very much a fantasy world. There's some Dante. There's some Lovecraftian tentacled horrors. There's even some CS Lewis' Narnia. In fact, one of the major premises to Chalk is that the world we live in is just a shadow of the real world— an idea touched on in The Chronicles of Narnia. Only LaPoint takes it one step further, by exploring levels of reality... and that some places can be dragged into the lower depths.
This fantasy world is … insane. Insane is a good word for it. There are Lovecraftian tentacle monsters and living buildings. There are ghost minotaurs who guard the forest. There are owls that could double as Middle Earth eagles, only more ornery. The streets of Hell really are paved with the skulls of corrupt bishops. The horseman of War now rides a war-velociraptor (not a Jurassic park version), and Death rides a black-bone “dracolich” (I do enjoy LaPoint's coinages). The knights are SpecOps Badasses armed with lightsabers and riding war unicorns. There are angry chairs with teeth that need to be strapped to a wall. The cuttlefish runs Veridian City (not emerald).
The uses of magic are inventive, and everything is treated ... appropriately.
For example? There are lines like
"The horse you can't hear tells me that I'm not crazy."
"What are we expecting here? Zombies? Hipsters? zombie hipsters? Because that sounds like actual hell to me and not this approximation to hell."
Also, NR LaPoint has a great visual style, painting an elaborate landscape wherever the plot takes him. Some of these horrors are what HP Lovecraft would have described if Lovecraft every moved a step beyond "this horror was indescribable."
There is no overt politics here. But if you're one of those types who think everything is political, then fine. The knights of this world are all Christian orders. Hell, angels and demons are real, and all make an appearance in this book -- and not the cute and cuddly angels either, but the ones made of wheels of fire and thousands of eyes.
There is no sex, and there is no profanity. The violence is what TV would consider "fantasy violence," like a Lord of the Rings movie. Technically, since our heroine is a teenager, this would traditionally be labeled a YA novel--only without the usual depravity one usually finds in the YA section these days. I do not even think that the Lovecraftian nightmare creatures are enough to give someone nightmares. I could very easily see giving this to someone of all ages.
Then again, I'm the oddball who read The Once and Future King in sixth grade, so let's call it PG-13, and take a read before giving to anyone 13 and under.
Who is it for?
Anyone who enjoys Terry Prachett, Tim Powers, John C. Wright, or just action-heavy fantasy is going to love this novel. NR LaPoint's fantasy is so awesome, he makes Neil Gaiman look like a poser.
Why read it?
Read this book for a fantasy world that is nearly constant, non-stop action, with just enough room to breath. Despite being nearly 100,000 words, I finished it in three sittings. It is an inventive, fun piece of work, and I look forward to the next book.
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