In her “Acknowledgments,” Priest notes that this is likely “the last book I write in Seattle.” It’s an small bit of foreshadowing for a story that reads a little like a love note to the lost teens of the city, an expression of their conditions and their struggle for direction.
Set in an alternate 1880, Seattle has been walled off from the world for almost twenty years, ever since The Blight, a noxious substance that turns people exposed to it into “rotters,” or zombies, was accidentally released. The story centers on Rector, a red-headed orphan who is expected to leave the orphanage on the day he turns 18. Rector, also known as Red, has little ambition and fewer goals. He’s been haunted by the ghost of Zeke, a young kid he helped into Seattle, and has an idea that he can atone for a multitude of sins by finding and burying Zeke’s body. He also needs a way to support himself and his sap habit, a drug manufactured from Blight (but sounds like a cross between the effects of heroin and the complications of methamphetamine).
While The Inexplicables is decently written, I had trouble remaining engaged while reading. After reflection and a re-read, I realized part of my challenge is the general unpleasantness of Rector’s personality. Priest seems to have done this deliberately–he “whines,” “brags,” “gripes” and “protests,” and uses phrases that emphasize his limitations:
“…he liked the princess in that idle way that required no actual investment on his part” and
“Thinking wasn’t his favorite thing to do, and it wasn’t his strong suit, though he didn’t consider himself a dummy by any means.”
While I initially thought of it as a coming-of-age novel, the truth is that those descriptions don’t vary significantly throughout the book; he’s consistently unpleasant, so it’s challenging to be emotionally invested in someone that resents the people reaching out at the same time he craves interaction. I understood the parallel with disaffected youth and the redemption analogy once I considered Priest’s dedication. But it doesn’t make reading it less comfortable. Similarly, the dialogue of the three boys while exploring seems very realistic with constant jockeying and squabbling–but again, just because it’s realistic doesn’t mean it’s fun to witness.
In its favor, the pace is fast, the writing nicely descriptive, and the world-building decent. There’s nice moments of poetry, such as when Red’s addiction is described early on: “This loop, this perpetual rolling hiccup of discomfort, was an old friend. His hours stuttered. They stammered, repeated themselves, and left him at the same place as always, back at the beginning. Reaching for more, even when there wasn’t any.”
Initially, Rector’s redemption quest makes a sort of strange sense, but as soon as he finds Zeke, it is almost entirely forgotten, except one or two sentences referring to “the same little spot that used to hold Zeke’s ghost; it was the place where phantoms rested and waited, even without the same to fuel them.” The back cover blurb bills the plot as Red’s chance to ‘pick a side,’ but since “the side” is a foregone conclusion (and it isn’t really about sides at all when everyone decides “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”), there isn’t any suspense. There’s an additional plot line surrounding “the inexplicable,” a red herring/distraction/parable of hope which almost negates Priest’s efforts at world-building with the promise of recovery from Blight. The message of redemption is clear and perhaps a little heavy-handed, especially at the end when the nurse is talking with Miss Angeline.
It is a little hard to imagine the target audience when one of the essential plot points on a number of levels is the making and use of sap. A drug manufacturer bands with other Seattle residents to defend themselves against worse drug kingpins? Add to it the unlikeable aspects of Rector, his dealing, his addiction, his easy detox, and it feels a little like a sad, dilapidated, millennium version of the Goonies making an effort to save their home and befriend a monster. Young adult? Hmm–not with those themes–hard to imagine a parent reading aloud Red’s craving for just one more dose of sap. Adult fantasy? Sort of–however, while it attempts to portray issues in more challenging shades of grey, resolution is simplistic and clean, with ethical challenges that are acknowledged in a sentence and then dismissed. Certainly not horror-fantasy–the rotters are a mere backdrop and have almost no on-screen presence. Steampunk fans will be disappointed that there are only brief glimpses of airships, and all other artifacts are strictly period. Generally negative, but too clean for pathos; easy in its redemption–I found it interesting while reading, but disappointed by a canned aftertaste. I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone but Priest fans or people looking for a very specific type of read.
Technical Notes: the paperback edition I read used a light brown ink, much like Boneshaker. It’s a little challenging visually.
Although it may or may not be book #5, it works fine as a stand-alone book. I’ve only read one other book by Priest, the Boneshaker. It was nice to see characters from that book, but reading it first wasn’t necessary. Technically, however, this book would include spoilers for that one.