Back in 2018 when I first read this I said “If you could somehow find the midpoint between Lovecraft, Joyce, Le Carre and Lewis Carroll you might be on similar ground but this is no pastiche. It's a tough read but so worth the effort.” That’s not a terrible summation. I thought this was a sequel to the first Kiernan book I read, Agents of Dreamland, but a version of this was written first and published as a chapbook, then she rewrote it after writing Dreamland. Like its prequel, it is told in a nonlinear style. As I said then it’s often a tough read. There’s a chapter in which the dialog is all in French. On my first pass, I googled every phrase and got the gist, only to find the chapter with translated dialog as an appendix. The book makes the reader work to figure out what is happening, but once it’s pieced together, it is genuinely horrifying.
A long lived woman named Ptolema, currently working for a government agency that investigates supernatural crises meets with some shifty members of a group that is involved in a less clearly stated way. She is in search of one of a set of twins, Bete, and the Psychiatrist who has been running an experiment on them. The other twin, Ivoire, is in New England, coerced into joining a fight against what appears to be the initial phases of the awakening of a Cthuhlu like creature and his minions. There are dips into the past and into the far future. There are literal and metaphorical chess games (I definitely thought about Nabokov at times while reading this). The Signalman, the main agent in the prequel, makes a cameo.
The horror is equal parts cosmic and psychological. The mood is both awe-evoking and oppressive. "Eris plays a mean game of chess," Kiernan says at one point. Eris is the Greek goddess of chaos and strife; chaos and uncertainty are the major themes here, and the source of much of the horror. In dialog: "I'm certain of that sir.’ ‘Ptolema, my dear, no one is ever ----ing certain of anything. In all the wide world, there is not a scintilla of certainty.’ And later translated from French: "Ma'am," says Babbitt, not daring to raise his head. You are certain you will obtain the desired results?".... "Babbitt, I have never in all my life been certain. Which is the point."
This is the kind of weird fiction that works best on me. Maybe my favorite of the Kiernan books I’ve read, and definitely my favorite of the ones I’ve read twice (though a third read of The Drowning Girl could change that). A literary horror novel/weird tale of the highest order.
Rereads and Everything Else 2020 23/25