Crowder’s (Cobalt City Blues, etc.) sci-fi novel reimagines characters from an array of literary sources—from the Greek classics to Charles Dickens—as outcasts in a gritty, present-day London.
While sheltering in a squalid, abandoned flat in London, William Shakespeare’s Juliet is still trying to kill herself. She, along with several other Fictional Personae, as they are known, were spat out of a rift at the nearby Epping Green. A few are talking animals or supernatural beings, such as angels, but even those that are human in form aren’t completely human: their blood turns to ink when they’re injured. Most of them are also beholden to the text from which they spring; for example, the Steadfast Tin Soldier, a fairy-tale character, feels a reflexive compulsion toward steadfast loyalty, even though he renames himself Franklin and comes through the rift as flesh rather than metal. Displaced from their texts, the Fictional Personae live like refugees—needy, disoriented, and largely dispirited. Most Londoners are loath to associate with them, and treat them either as strange curiosities or a social pestilence. When angels trickle through the rift in great number, aligning themselves with a puritanical Galahad and a reluctant Arthur to create a Camelot for the righteous, Franklin and a motley crew, including Medea, Judas Iscariot, and a wiser-than-he-appears Don Quixote, assemble to stop them. Meanwhile, Juliet struggles with her own lack of volition, finding herself drawn to Medea, from whom she buys poison. She’s never able to die, so her skin secretes the toxins, killing anyone who touches her. Ultimately, she must decide whether to help or hinder Arthur’s quest. The final showdown of this novel is a page-turner. However, the pacing lags elsewhere; too many pages detail the dourness of the Fictional Personae’s circumstances. The characterizations are likewise hit or miss. The shrewd and unreadable, caring and cunning Medea, and to a lesser degree, Judas, will command readers’ attention. Don Quixote is compelling as well, particularly when he’s wrapped up in his delusions. The poisonous Juliet veers incongruously farther into comic-book territory than the others, though, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier simply doesn’t offer enough literary source material for a resonant character to emerge. The prose could have used some considerable fine-tuning, as it’s awash in adverbs and excessive description: “A sudden tic motion of her head to the left was an irrefutable sign that the poison had taken hold of something in her.”
An intriguing concept, but uneven execution clouds this literary alternate reality.