(2020) Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Candor, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 371pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51507-6
Night Vale is a landlocked US desert town where weird stuff is just taken as routine. The sky frightens people more than their sheriff leading his own secret police force and a late-night community radio presenter transmits his shows live even while asleep at home in his bed. Angels wander round freely. Employers tend to be tentacled hooded figures in gas filled locked rooms. The earlier Night Vale books, Welcome To Night Vale (2015) and It Devours (2017) centre all the action in the town, as do the free fortnightly podcasts which can be found on Youtube.
After cameos in the other Nightvale books 'The Faceless Old Woman' (whose name is never revealed) has opening and closing bookend scenes and a few interludes set in Night Vale in this story. However, most of the action involves a lengthy and very good seafaring piracy swashbuckling yarn centred on a feisty woman’s lifelong quest for merciless vengeance on the man responsible for the death of her father. The identity of the villain is easy to work out well before the heroine discovers the awful truth.
There are several intriguing threads that prove to be red herrings, though some may resurface in future Night Vale books.
The big mystery is how an early 19th century European buccaneer ends up as an invisible, powerful entity in middle America in 2020. She tells us she is not a ghost or poltergeist though she has the powers we might associate with those, and she is literally in all Night Vale homes at once, an omnipresent manipulator of lives and relationships.
She is particularly fixated on a young Night Vale man called Craig, making sure he picks the right wife (by frightening off the opposition) and solving his debt crisis by siphoning money to his bank account from the accounts of one of his friends. Her motives, and even the possibility of how she can do this are not revealed until the closing chapters.
The piracy adventure is a great novel in its own right, but it makes the overall work a very untypical Night Vale tale, with the regular recurring characters and oddities relegated to background and cameos even when the feisty heroine arrives there. The book feels like a prolonged superhero-supervillain origin story, so it is possible the Faceless Old Woman may well reappear in future Night Vale projects.
There is little supernaturalism in the central historic tale. We are told of the mysterious ships bearing the Labyrinth flag and the glowing crates on their decks, but this isn’t really expanded on. There is a mysterious apparitional figure covered in blood who asks the pirate queen ‘why?’ repeatedly but that too isn’t ultimately a key part of the overall story arc.
The one strand that provides some portent of things to come is the heroine visibly shifting out of focus as her facial features become harder for her friends to read as her quest goes on. Each setback in her plans increases her drive for a personal sense of justice and pushes her increasingly into obsession and fanaticism. Her identity and youth and beauty are in danger of being dissolved by her all-consuming goal. She is in many ways like Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)
A great novel if taken in itself but likely to disappoint some regular Night Vale readers for being tenuously shoehorned into its very strange world. It feels like a crossover work between books that really stand better if left independent of one another.
See also reviews for Mostly Void, Partially Stars: Welcome to Nightvale Episodes Volume 1 and The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe Welcome to Nightvale Episodes Volume 2.
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