Decades ago, I read This is the Way the World Begins, by J.T. McIntosh, which I quite liked, mainly on the strength of the characterization. More recently, I saw an opportunity to download some free books, including This Is the Way the World Ends, by James Morrow. Aged as I am, I confused the names, and thought, “This must be a sequel, or I remembered the title wrong.” I downloaded a bunch of James Morrow books. All unsuspecting, I started in on this one.
Obviously, it wasn’t what I was expecting. McIntosh and Morrow have different styles. Equally obviously, different doesn’t mean bad. The book kept my interest, though I wish it had been stronger. Overall, it reminded me of a Jack Vance mystery, with its baroque atmosphere and odd characters. Unfortunately, while Vance pulls that off through whimsy, verbal acrobatics, and no real pretense at depth for supporting characters, The Continent of Lies tended to bog down in its own conceits. I followed along, but was neither drawn in enough by the environment to be swept away, nor engaged enough by the characters to follow in their wake.
The protagonist is engaging enough, though his backstory consists of only a few layers, and his interactions with other characters are hindered by those characters’ shallowness. The plot is plenty baroque, and interesting in its own way, though it dispenses a little too readily with reality and logic, without humor to paper over the cracks. The tone is dry, but too clever for its own good without being funny.
Some of the settings, while gothic and extreme, aren’t as clearly described as they might be, and the mechanics are sometimes vague. At least one of the subquests feels like a long and fairly pointless detour. While there are hints of the Odyssey mixed in, Morrow never really makes enough of it to matter. While the dream apples (cephapples/dreambeans, if you want to be correct) are intended to take the user through a carefully designed dream setting, Morrow seems to forget some of that when it comes to the resolution, creating a need for props and tools that were otherwise unmentioned. More worryingly, the creation of the dangerous fruit is strikingly simple – something that Morrow acknowledges late, and which undermines the story as a whole. The title is clever, but has little to do with the plot.
Overall, the book was interesting, but came across as a less charming Vance.