In Hamlet, the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mere bystanders, but they get to present their own view in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And so it is with Patrick Ness’s clever new fantasy: In the chapter headings, we get a brief précis of how the Immortals are coming to take over the Earth and are challenged by kids with names like Satchel and Finn; but this is only the backdrop to the lives of four teens who are about to graduate. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they notice and comment on the action and occasionally, and at one point crucially, their lives intersect with it, but they are much more concerned with their own issues.
Mr Ness is slyly amusing about teen fantasy lit tropes. There have been several previous invasions of this small town in Washington state – vampires, soul-eating ghosts – which the population has stoically endured. Adults don’t seem to notice anything wrong and only indie kids are able to battle these forces – in fact, the invaders are entirely uninterested in the regular kids.
But what of the UnChosen ones that this novel largely focuses on? It’s a very fine novel of friendship, growing up and dealing with the hand that Life has dealt you. Narrator Mikey, his sister Mel and their friends Henna and Jared are close to graduating from high school. Mikey and Mel’s family life is challenging – their mum is an ambitious politician, their dad is a checked out alcoholic – and both have suffered from anxiety and control disorders. Henna’s parents want her to go with them on a Christian mission to the Central African Republic, and Jared is gay, though has never had a relationship. (And he’s one quarter God, which seems to break the fantasy fourth wall just a little).
The characters and their personal drama, for which so many speculative novels are metaphors, are scrappily realistic. Mikey gets help when his OCD starts to get out of hand; his long unrequited crush on Henna reaches an unanticipated resolution; they are all ready to move on to the next stage of life.
Mr Ness has a pretty varied resume, though has often juxtaposed real life with fantasy. This is his first novel in which the fantasy is the scenery with the realistic novel in the foreground, and I think it will rightly appeal to a broader range of readers than his previous novels.
Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.