by Victor LaValle
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a free e-book of The Changeling from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The release date is one week away, June 13, 2017. I didn't read anything about this beforehand, but based on the title I had an expectation of what it would be about. That expectation was subverted and challenged on almost every page, but I mean that in a positive sense. There are many levels to the story, and it wasn't until about a third of the way that the fantasy element solidified. A few minor hints up to that point, but some of them were misdirection, or at least didn't lead to the reveal I was anticipating.
The opening chapters give us a leisurely character study of Apollo West, including the courtship and marriage of his parents Brian and Lillian, as well as their divorce when Apollo was four. Around that time, Apollo began having a recurring nightmare involving his father, but late in the book that is revealed to be more memory than illusion. Apollo was an avid reader, and his mother fed his obsession by bringing home magazines from her place of employment, as well as books from neighbors and friends. He started earning money by reselling the books and magazines he didn't care to keep to others in their apartment building. Later, he started scouring used bookstores and library sales, sometimes acquiring titles he could resell for substantial profit. This continued until adulthood, by which time he was well known by bookstore owners and other rare book dealers and collectors. On one of his library visits he meets Emma, with whom he is smitten. She rebuffs his advances for several months, but finally agrees to a date. They eventually marry and have a child, born on a stalled subway car. For reasons he doesn't understand himself, Apollo names his son Brian, after his father.
I don't want to give too many other details, but I will mention one of the first instances of something I thought would lead to further plot revelations, but didn't. At an estate sale, Apollo stumbles upon a collection of rare occult books in very good condition, at least one of which might have previously been owned by Aleister Crowley. What I thought would happen was Apollo becoming obsessed with these books, maybe learning a few spells which would propel the fantasy element. Nope, didn't happen. He eventually sells all the books and they're never mentioned again. Another element that did not lead where I expected was Apollo's recurring nightmare. Each time it's recounted another element is revealed, a further step taken by Apollo or his father, but not fully explained until much later, with Lillian telling her son what actually happened. And yet, still not everything I anticipated, but I won't say what that was.
When the fantasy element does assert itself, it seems out of the blue, sudden and unexpected, and quite brutal. Emma has become convinced their son is a changeling. She apparently drugs Apollo, for when he regains consciousness he is chained to the apartment radiator. Emma crushes his jaw with a hammer, dislocates one of his eye sockets, and he is helpless as she walks down the hallway to Brian's room. Apollo has no memory of anything after that until he wakes in the hospital, where he sees on the news that Emma has disappeared, wanted for the murder of their son. The rest of the story involves Apollo's quest to find Emma and avenge his son's death. Many other characters are introduced, any one of whom could prove to be part of the puzzle, but since there had already been multiple red herrings it kept me guessing for a long time. Many areas of New York are described so vividly they almost become characters themselves; Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Riker's Island. Some events are so fantastical it's hard to believe they could have gone unnoticed in such a heavily populated area; multiple deaths/disappearances of mothers and children; a colony of these people hidden on what is supposed to be the abandoned and off-limts North Brother Island in the East River; a mysterious cave in the middle of Forest Hills park. These only make sense when we learn the origin of the changelings involves magic, a glamour, which masks the true nature of what is happening.
Other than a too-long section of exposition, LaValle exerts quite a bit of glamour himself. He weaves his words in a magical formula of evocative prose, especially the way he develops the character of Apollo, a man determined to be a much better father than his own. At the risk of spoilers, I'll only say his dedication and heroism affords him a second chance. I recommend you follow him on his journey.
UPDATE: Since posting this review, The Changeling has won several awards, all for Best Horror Novel. 2017 Dragon Award, 2018 Locus, & 2018 British Fantasy. Most recently it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, in a tie with Fonda Lee's Jade City.
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