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Last Exit, by Max Gladstone

Review copy provided by the publisher. Also the author is a friend.

One of the central things a review is supposed to do is say who might like a thing, and genre is one of the major ways of doing that. So right away we have the question: what genre is Last Exit? When I was much younger and less concerned with being fair, I drew the line between dark fantasy and horror at my own taste: if I liked it, it was dark fantasy; if I did not, it was horror. Last Exit, then, is dark fantasy.

I grew up, though, and I recognized that that was not very helpful to other people, nor even, necessarily, to myself. (Growing up and recognizing when you’ve oversimplified is not irrelevant to this book! but onward.)

So: horror is the genre that is attempting to horrify, to terrify? Well then. Some sections of Last Exit are very certainly horror. Because there are scenes of rot and decay both literal and moral, there are scenes of monsters too relentless to flee effectively, there are good people snuffed out not just in fangs but in the worst of the culture that you will recognize yourself to live in right now–the kind of horror that you can’t escape by reminding yourself that zombies aren’t real, because it’s not about zombies, it’s about the worst thoughts that whisper in the minds of Americans. Last Exit, then, is horror.

But what if, instead, horror is about worldview. What if whether a story is horror or not depends on the hostility of the universe in which it is set–a universe that is out to get the protagonists at every turn, a universe in which good deeds and intentions will always turn to nothing, a universe in which all shelter is inherently temporary and the permanent condition is always, eventually, fear and despair–well–if that’s the case, is Last Exit horror or fantasy? That…is a spoiler. Because that’s one of the central questions of the book. That is, in fact, one of the major things the characters are wrestling with. Can we get to something better, can we make something better–is it possible.

But what’s the book about. Oh, well then. Zelda and Sal, Sarah, Ish, and Ramón are college friends who have learned a knack of passing between alternate worlds, and they were determined to find or make the way to something better. And they failed. And in that failure, Sal was lost, and has stayed lost for ten years. They’ve grown apart, each into their separate ways of coping, but that no longer looks sustainable. Now they have to find Sal again and fix what they broke or–well. The details of that “or” look pretty nasty not just for them but for the entire array of worlds they can manage to see. It’s full of road trips and first loves and growing into yourself and figuring out who your friends are when you’ve been apart for awhile and recoiling from all the worst things you can’t pretend aren’t out there in the world, and also it has a couple of places where it made me cry hard enough the entire front of my body seized up at once. (Good job, Gladstone.) Is it dark, yes. Is it only dark, no, absolutely not. It is really, really, really good. For me it was also a book I described as a full-contact sport. This book is not going to fight Marquis of Queensbury Rules with you, and if you want a gentle book at this exact moment, maybe keep this one on the pile until you’re ready for something that isn’t. Because it isn’t. Not everything is. And this one really needed not to be, to get where it’s going in the end.

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