Last Exit by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is a combination of science fiction (the multiverse and alternate worlds, and nearly all of those worlds seem to be post-apocalyptic), fantasy (the characters don't use any kind of technology to travel to those alternate worlds, just their own "spin," a gathering of quantum energy to breach the multiversal barriers) and horror (some of those worlds have monsters, and as the book progresses the multiverse itself is breaking down, allowing the "rot" to seep in and incorporeal Lovecraftian entities from beyond to ooze their way through). But while this setting is complex enough, the themes of the story are love and loss, pain and guilt and a determination on the characters' parts to set things right, no matter the cost.
Ten years ago, while still in college, Zelda discovered the multiverse and how to travel it. She recruited her college friends Sarah, Ramon and Ish, and talked her girlfriend Sal into coming with her to roam the various worlds. They spent two years on the "alt"-roads, seeing wonders and horrors, saving some of the inhabitants of those post-apocalyptic worlds and losing others, until Zelda proposed finding and using the "crossroads," a metaphysical place where all the alts met, to fix them and make our original Earth better. But they failed, and in failing, Zelda lost Sal to that dimension beyond the last "alt." Back on our Earth, everyone abandoned Zelda and fled, and for the past ten years she has been on the road by herself, trying to fix the cracks between worlds. Until, as she does every year, she returns to New York City on the anniversary of Sal's loss and tries once again to apologize to her mother, and talks to Sal's cousin June, who was six when Sal left. When she explains things to June, standing on a bridge in New York, and shows her one of the alts, both she and June see Sal...and Zelda realizes Sal is returning from whatever lies beyond the alts, and she is bringing the shadows and rot with her.
This is the story of Zelda's attempts to either stop Sal or reunite with her, but it is also an intense character study of all six characters: Zelda, Sarah, Ish, Ramon, June, and Sal. We return to those days in college when they were cocksure kids setting off on a road trip they did not at all understand, and follow through all the pain, grief and heartbreak of those years on the alt-roads and the time in between. The group was fractured seemingly beyond repair, but they all answered Zelda's plea for help, for her and the sake of their unfinished business. Slowly, they mend the rifts between them, learn the ways of the road and how to work together again. They face a new enemy, a white-hatted "cowboy" whose hats gnaw out the brains of the person they possess, who is hunting them down to stop them from finding Sal. And they retrace their steps from ten years before, across the black road linking the worlds, to the final confrontation where Sal is on the other side and Zelda must choose whether or not to join her.
This is a beautifully written book, with many lovely turns of phrase throughout. The journey to the crossroads takes up most of the narrative, and the journey, and the characters' slow reconnection and the gradual unfolding of what exactly happened ten years ago, was fascinating and absorbing. Unfortunately, the author didn't really stick the landing, because the ending was too ambiguous for my taste. Admittedly, I believe the author did this deliberately, leaving it up to the reader to interpret, for instance, just exactly who or what the "cowboy" was, and where Sal was all that time, and what will happen to the multiverse now that Sal and Zelda have reunited. There are as many possible interpretations as there are readers and alternate worlds, but I prefer a little more solidity to my answers.
But despite the ending that let me down a bit (and your mileage may vary on that), it was a helluva journey getting there, and certainly worth the trip.
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