- Ersatz Detectives
304 Pages; Cloth, $23.40
The authorities of the eponymous City have tried and convicted a serial killer, but a group of otherworldly beings is convinced that the murders aren't going to stop. Superhuman brothers Chance and The Trickster recruit The City's forensic therapist, Dr. Miranda Ecuovo, to find and stop the real killer or risk serious consequences for mortal and supernatural worlds alike. The investigation takes these ersatz detectives down a twisty, recursive path through time, dream, and unreality to a confrontation too close to home for everyone involved. Part criminal profiling thriller and part mythopoetic adventure, Karen Lord's Unraveling promises readers a unique, genre-blurring literary experience.
Unfortunately, it fails to live up to that promise. Lord tells the audience very little about the setting or premise, leaving significant gaps in what we are supposed to understand about them, much less why we should be invested. The City is clearly a fictional place with specific customs, social structures, and history that reflect but differ from our own world, yet these ideas are barely mentioned, and they have almost no effect on other aspects of the book. Writers of speculative fiction often rely on their fictional settings to ground big ideas and elevate small details, adding specific kinds of depth and complexity that might be unavailable in the real world, but Unraveling might as well be set in any urban area with a government and social stratification. Placing the story in New York or Lagos or Istanbul would allow readers to get on with reading rather than spending mental energy on the relevance of a socio-political context that's constantly referenced without explanation.
The serial killer plot, usually a reliable way to add narrative tension, does little to increase interest even with characters who can visit the past and experience others' trauma as easily as walk down the street. Chance, The Trickster, and Miranda revisit the discovery of corpses and other relevant points in history, seeking overlooked details that might lead them to their quarry. "Look, a clue" is the extent of the action in these scenes and sometimes "Look, no clues"; "Murder is bad" is their lesson. The differences between time travel and dream walking are neither well-delineated nor interesting in their ambiguity, and it's made worse by the presence of other constructed realities, conventional narrative flashbacks, and characters' inconsistent effects on the times and places they're visiting. Weaving in and out of time, memory, and dream is a fascinating way to approach a murder mystery, but in trying to understand Lord's execution, we feel more like The Trickster trying to understand an elder: "He had long ago discovered that [the elder] had a strange regard for some unknown set of rules—rules that did not at all apply to the small powers at his junior level."
Lord quickly tells us what to do with this feeling: "Part of him did not wish to know, and so he moved on to another question." In other words, don't get bogged down by the details. Withholding information is a risky move that will alienate some readers while others find it engaging: Kazou Ishiguro's The Buried Giant (2015) is a confusing blur of a story, or it's an atmospheric exploration of memory loss; Albert Camus' The Plague (1947) reveals its narrator late in the game to deepen our
understanding of that character, or it's a cop-out move that shows a distrust of the audience. That Lord is willing to take this risk is laudable, and I'm the kind of reader that would rather an author leave gaps for me to ponder, even in frustration, than bore me with too much description. But having such a clear analogy for my experience in The Trickster's inner thoughts drives home the fact that Unraveling does its ambiguity poorly.
This failing might have been be forgivable because Lord's skill is such that we move smoothly forward through her prose, whether a given passage is explicit or elliptical, and...