In his debut novel Talker 25, Joshua McCune asked us, “What are your limits? How far would you go to protect the ones you love?” In the sequel to that heartbreaking, intense novel, he pushes us even further: “Once you have decided what you will do, what does that do to you? Who do you become in the pursuit of your goals — whether righteousness or revenge — and can you live with yourself?”
These are searing, difficult questions, and McCune does not quail in asking them, nor does he permit us to shrink before them. I will tell you honestly that it took me a long time to read this book, not just because I wanted to do it justice in a review, but because I had to pause sometimes when it got too difficult emotionally. I warned in my review of Talker 25, and I repeat here, that these books are hard: they are violent, emotionally wrenching, and frighteningly real. They are not for the faint of heart or the timid. My friend Becky has a perfect term for books that are lightweight, fun reads: popcorn books. I love popcorn books almost as much as I love popcorn. Salty, crunchy, buttery popcorn gets all over your fingers and makes your mouth come awake. But you can’t survive on popcorn; sooner or later, you have to eat something substantial.
There’s a place for popcorn books, and there’s a place for difficult books. Books that make us think about who we are as individuals, as societies, and as a species.
My favorite serious books aren’t the heavy, dull tomes of “literature” that they make you read in school. I prefer my social critiques to take the form of sci-fi and fantasy. With characters like Stu Redman and Nick Andros or Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan.* Or people with dragons.
The emotional response I had to this book involved a lot of what our culture has defined as negative emotions: discomfort, anger, despair, frustration, even disgust. But I think these are the things I’m supposed to be feeling. I think this is exactly what the author wanted. Salon Magazine interviewed a cognitive psychologist about the new Pixar movie “Inside Out” and the upshot of it was that we are too focused on happiness as a society and we discount the power and importance of emotions like sadness and frustration. I agree, and I think this book is a reflection of that. Yes, there is a place for fun reads and light reads and joyous reads, but there is also a place for books that make you delve into dark places, books that make you question the borders between right and wrong, books that force you to look at the worst in humanity.
Joshua McCune is adept enough as a writer to make me want to continue to travel that path with him, as painful and arduous as it is. He captivates with language like “an aurora borealis of war” (p. 76), or, quite possibly my favorite line in the series so far: “…he scoops me up as if I’m nothing, pulls me to him as if I’m everything” (p. 195). As difficult as the plot may be to bear, you can’t look away, transfixed both by the first person present tense narrative (a device I usually dislike but in this case I find completely justified) and by the exacting precision of the prose.
There are several scenes in this book, actually, that are both beautifully written and terribly meaningful. It wouldn’t do justice to the story or to the author for me to describe or summarize them here; you should read the book. You’ll know the scenes when you get there.
I can only imagine what fresh hell Joshua McCune will unleash upon us when the third and final book of this series launches next year. I shudder in equal parts anticipation and dread at the thought of finding out.
*P.S. If you don’t recognize the characters I mentioned here, look them up or comment here/message me on Twitter (@mfantaliswrites). One set of characters is from a fantastic book I devoured over and over as a teenager, and the other is from one of the many amazing novels by my favorite fantasy writer (and no, it is not in fact J.R.R. Tolkien).