Pluralistic: Kelly Link's "Book of Love" (13 Feb 2023)

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The cover of the Penguin Random House edition of 'Book of Love.'

Kelly Link's "Book of Love" (permalink)

Kelly Link is one of science fiction's most important writers, a master of the short story to rank with the likes of Ted Chiang. For a decade, Kelly's friends have traded whispers that she was working on a novel – a giant novel – and the rumors were true and the novel is glorious and you will love it:

It's called The Book of Love and it's massive – 650 pages! It is glorious. It is tricky.

If you've read Link's short stories (which honestly, you must read), you know her signature move: a bone-dry witty delivery, used to spin tales of deceptive whimsy and quirkiness, disarming you with daffiness while she sets the hook and yanks. That's the unmistakeable, inimitable texture of a Kelly Link story: deft literary brushstrokes, painting a picture so charming and silly that you don't even notice when she cuts you without mercy.

Turns out that she can quite handily do this for hundreds of pages, and the effect only gets better when it's given space to unfold.

Hard to tell you about this one without spoilers! But I'll tell you this much. It's a story about three teenaged friends who return from death and find themselves in the music room at their high school, face to face with their mild-mannered music teacher, Mr Anabin. Anabin explains what's happened in frustratingly cryptic – and very emphatic – terms, but is interrupted when a sinister shape-shifting wolf enters the music room.

This is Bogomil, and whenever he speaks, Mr Anabin turns his back – and vice versa. Anabin and Bogomil appear to be rivals, and Bogomil may or may not have been the keeper of the land of the dead from which the three have escaped. There's also a forth, a tattered shade who's been dead so long they don't remember who they are or anything about themselves. Bogomil would like to take the four back to the deadlands, but Anabin proposes a contest and Bogomil agrees – but no one explains the contest or its rules (or even its stakes) to the four dead teenagers.

That's the wind up. The pitch that follows is flawless, a long and twisting mystery about friendship, love, queerness, rock-and-roll, stardom, parenthood, loyalty, lust and duty. There's a terrifying elder god of Lovecraftian proportions. There are ghosts upon ghosts. There are ancient grudges. There are sudden revelations that come from unexpected angles but are, in retrospect, perfectly set up.

More than anything, there are characters. It's impossible not to love Link's characters, despite (because of) their self-destructive choices and their impossible dilemmas. They are so sweet, but they are also by turns mean and spiteful and resentful, like the pinch of salt that transforms a caramel from inedible spun sugar into something that bites even as it delights.

These characters, so very likable, are often dead or at death's door, and that peril propels the story like an unstoppable locomotive. From the very start, it's clear that some of them can't survive to the end, and Link is merciless in making you root for all of them, even though this means rooting against them all. This, in turn, creates moments of toe-curling, sublime horror.

Link has built a complex machine with more moving parts than anyone has any business being able to keep track of. And yet, each of these parts meshes flawlessly with all the others. The book ends with such triumphant perfection that it lingers long after you put it down. I can't wait to read this one again.

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A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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