Urban tales of grimdark faeries really appeal to me for whatever reason. I think it has something to do with the juxtaposition of modern sensibilities and skepticism with the sheer brutality of fae logic and deal-making. The Uncertain Places certainly creates the right atmosphere. Lisa Goldstein’s storytelling reminds me, in ways of Charles de Lint’s approach to mixing our world with the fantastic. However, I found the plot a little convoluted and the main characters uninteresting at best and terrible at worst. So while I enjoyed the book, it’s not something I’m going to be championing.
It’s the 1970s. Will Taylor and his friend Ben have avoided the draft and started dating some weird sisters in California. Turns out these sisters are part of a family that, way back in the day in Germany, made a faerie deal. The family is extraordinarily lucky, but this luck comes at a price for one of the women of the family. As Will gets drawn deeper into the family, he decides he wants to do something about this. And he does it in the most ham-fisted way.
I just hate Will so much. He has about as much personality as a rag that was once wet but has since dried out in that way that leaves it a little bit stiff. He stumbles through this story like a drunken bull in a china shop. From the moment he hears about this deal, he resolves to break it, thinking he’s doing the family this great favour. At no point does he ever seriously ask anyone in the family if this is what they want, nor does he ever seem to be cognizant that, as an outsider, it isn’t really his place to do this. And when people call him out, he gets irate—which is about the only time he really seems to show much emotion.
Basically, Will is not a great protagonist. I don’t care about him, don’t feel like he has much of a personality, and I am not on board with his hero complex.
I respect how Goldstein has Will get involved with the deal very early in the novel, and then the rest of the story revolves around the fallout of Will’s involvement. Yet this is my where my second critique comes into play: the pacing of this novel is … odd. Goldstein will spend chapters and chapters in a single year, then suddenly jump forward several years. Goldstein’s prose is great, but the way the story is organized made it a challenge to really follow what was happening. Mostly, though, I just blame Will. There’s just no plan, no momentum. The characters seem to react more than act, jerking from crisis to crisis.
I came away from this thinking that The Uncertain Places would have worked better for me as a short story or novelette. As a shorter piece, Will’s shortcomings would have been less of an issue. The plot would have been tighter (one would hope). Overall it would have been an interesting piece. Expanded into a novel, it has become an unruly mass of storytelling.
Also (and this isn’t the fault of the author at all, but I want to complain about it), this edition is only 237 pages, but the print is really small. Like this is not the usual print size I’m used to in a book. It made it much harder to read and stay immersed in the story, and I have no idea whose terrible idea it was to typeset the book this way.