Like being invited to dinner at a friend’s favorite restaurant, I wanted to like this so much more than I actually did. Rather than a specific ingredient, I think it was a blend of a problem with narrative voice and style, as well as a personal challenge with story/imagery disconnect.
Explain, please, you say.
I will, because there are exactly zero negative deconstructive reviews at the moment, and I think potential readers might appreciate a dose of perspective. The premise is that the imaginary friends that some people dream up/believe in (usually assumed to be children) are given so much emotion and energy that they become a sort of real. However, if trauma occurs and the human lets go of those beliefs, those constructions are snapped into “The Stillreal. The underside of the Imagination that nobody remembers to clean. It can be a rough place, but it can also be beautiful.”
Tippy is a detective in the Stillreal, from Playtown zone, and he also happens to be a yellow triceratops. He takes a case about some corn that won’t stop screaming, and from there, discovers there’s a new unknown that seems to be actually, permanently killing the friends in the Stillreal.
This is Hayes’ first novel, and it isn’t a surprise. Narrative feels very explanatory throughout. Immersion and discovery as needed tends to be my preferred style of world-building, but it’s clear Hayes leans the other way. The ‘Prologue’ introduces the reader, standing in as an imaginary character, to the Stillreal world. However, Detective Tippy very much continues the expository asides throughout the story. It ends up distancing me emotionally from both Tippy and the story, because it turns on my Logic Brain and I start trying to integrate new details into the world in a consistent way. It also distances the reader from the immediacy of the action. Here’s a tiny bit from an early (page 7) action sequence:
“The worst thing I could do right now would be to run. The second-worst thing would be to call out to whatever is making the noise.
If I do the unexpected, I usually catch the bad guys off-guard. More shuffling. Ordinary senses wouldn’t be able to place it, but detective stuff says it’s two stalls from the end, behind another nondescript wooden door.”
Plotting felt uneven. Because of the expository narrative bits, and Tippy’s own emotional journey, along with side emotional journeys of various characters, it stops and stutters. In the last quarter, thriller-type action took over plotting and propels the reader toward the finish.
I did have a problem with the character Big Business. Most of the characters we see are clearly out of children and young people’s imaginations, but Big Business is… I don’t know, a young OCD stockbroker’s pipe dream? He sits so awkwardly in between the stuffed animals, the comic avatars, the playtime farms and play soldiers. I guess it’s because of another explano-babble where Hayes adds to his imaginary friend rules, stating that parents and kids will help create nightmares in the Stillreal out of the news (p.215). Which is quite a different conceptual idea than the idea of imaginary friends/concepts that come to life from living alongside their creator for a long time, that snap into the Stillreal due to trauma. I felt like the rules of the world changed instead of enlarged, and that made me like it less.
Hayes states he writes to “show people that not only are they not alone in this terrifying world,’ and I did appreciate that this story had a strong theme of The Power of Friendship and connection in its many complicated forms.
But in regards to the terrifyingness of the world, this is less Jasper Fforde Early Riser and more John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things. or Michael Marshall Smith’s Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane... The villain is making inroads into the Stillreal because (major theme spoiler here) he’s abducting and eventually killing children in the real world. I’d say that the reader might catch on to this before Tippy does, which is unsurprising. But it’s major plot point and thus makes it feel very unsuited to younger readers. This, once again, is Nostalgia for Young Stuff, not actual appropriate for young people.
It isn’t a bad book, but it is very much a book I had to work to get through. The imagination of the world-building means it benefits from longer, attentive reading periods. I think only the best authors can make one care about their heroes while building a complex new world and still tell a good story. This feels more muddled than I like.
However, there might also be a case of generational mismatch here, which may also account for some of the more enthusiastic reviews. The themes here feels very much about sadness about missing the way things used to be, and trying to do right and fair to the friends one has now. The exterior world is full of totally horrible things, but at least we can be awesome and help our friends.
Two and a half imaginary friends.