An ambitious debut set in New York, but not the New York we know.
The story's protagonist, Hel, is one of a handful of UDPs—Universally Displaced Persons—who left a parallel world to escape nuclear holocaust. In her world, Hel was a surgeon. Now she’s a refugee with too much time on her hands and a growing obsession with an author named Ezra Sleight. Hel’s lover, Vikram—another UDP—was doing graduate work on Sleight’s science-fiction masterpiece, The Pyronauts, before the end came, but, in our world, Sleight died as a child, long before he ever wrote a word. Hel is convinced that she should turn his house into a museum of memories, a tribute to all the people and things that existed in her world but don’t in the world in which she is stranded. This is a promising concept, and there is much here to enjoy. There’s the frisson of discovering the subtle differences between universes. There’s dark humor in attempts—formal and informal—to acclimate the newcomers. Vikram, who finds work as a security guard, gets nightly lectures from a co-worker “on such diverse topics as John Grisham, Cher, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the Brooklyn Nets.” There’s obvious—but not belabored—commentary on the immigrant experience in the United States, made more poignant by the fact that, not only can the UDPs never go home, but they also must live in a place in which their home never existed. Hel’s quest to preserve her past is both quixotic and perfectly understandable. But the characters here—especially Hel—are underdeveloped, and much of the plot hinges on a twist that strains credulity. Hel loses The Pyronauts—the only copy in existence, one of Vikram’s prized possessions, and the cornerstone of her proposed museum. And then she doesn’t realize that she’s lost it until it’s been missing for days or weeks. Vikram doesn’t seem to notice its absence, either. Chess’ fantastic worldbuilding is convincing; this depiction of mundane human psychology and behavior is not.
Flawed but still impressive. Chess is a writer to watch.