Excessive if superbly imagined: a downbeat adult fantasy about the resonances between a fictional role-playing game and those who play it.
As 12-year-old Jack Doone is pulled under a wave outside his family’s Delaware shore vacation cottage, a strange feeling, as if his life has changed its course, comes over him. He wakes up on the beach, alive and with a seemingly broken arm that then heals in yet another shift in reality. His twin sister Jilly, with whom he has an almost psychic bond, has no memories of these and other alternate pasts. The two spend the summer of 1977 playing games, one of which, Mutes & Norms, is a role player modeled on Dungeons & Dragons, a creation of their pot-smoking Uncle Jimmy, who, in the absence of the twins’ parents, is becoming overly affectionate with their older teenaged sister, Ellen. Jimmy’s game pits five mutant races against normal humans in an eerie post-holocaust landscape, and a phantasmagorical netspace—a kind of psychic Internet. Kestrel, a birdlike mutant who can fly and make the wind do his bidding, appeals most to Jack. The narrative shifts between the sexually awakening Jack, who comes to believe he can alter reality to save himself and others, and Kestrel, who must also ferret out a spy in his mutant platoon. Kestrel’s world, a paranoid religious tyranny ruled by Holy Rollers—mystical psychics who roll dice—shows the intricate brilliance of the early Samuel Delaney. Witcover (Waking Beauty, not reviewed) sets up, and then deliberately avoids a feel-good unification of these worlds. When Jack and Kestrel attempt to control their destiny, horrifying tragedy results.
A nursery rhyme is recast as an intensely imagined nightmare of a tormented adolescent’s fear of the adult world.