Briarpatch, by Tim Pratt

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Publication date – September 15, 2011

Summary: (Taken from Amazon) Darrin’s life has been going downhill ever since his girlfriend Bridget walked out on him without a word of explanation six months ago. Soon after losing her, he lost his job, and his car, and eventually his enthusiasm for life. He can’t imagine things getting worse – until he sees Bridget again, for the first time since she walked out, just moments before she leaps to her death from a bridge. In his quest to find out why Bridget took her own life, he encounters a depressive (and possibly immortal) cult leader; a man with a car that can drive out of this world and into others; a beautiful psychotic with a chrome shotgun; and a bridge that, maybe, leads to heaven. Darrin’s journey leads him into a place called the Briarpatch, which is either the crawlspace of the universe, or a series of ambitious building projects abandoned by god, or a tangle of alternative universes, depending on who you ask. Somewhere in that disorderly snarl of worlds, he hopes to find Bridget again… or at least a reason to live without her.

Thoughts: The concept of the briarpatch is an interesting one. A parallel world, or series of parallel worlds, that contain the improbable and implausible, tenuously holding to an existence that few can see unaided. Pratt takes the ‘alternate world’ concept and runs with it in a direction that I don’t see done that often. It’s noteworthy that he not only did this in a way that is believable, following its own rules and reasons, but also in such a way that still even the experts on the briarpatch don’t really know what it is, can only guess at its true nature. While I like understanding the weirder aspects of speculative fiction, I can definitely appreciate it when large-scale things don’t get boiled down to something simple. Reality is a hard thing to understand, even reality as we know it. Why should an alternate reality be less so?

While the characters were not particularly deep as far as development goes, they were still realistically done, so I can’t complain too loudly about them. They were more than just archetypes, but there were times that they felt flat, as though their whole lives were about the things going on between the pages at that time. It kept the reader very centred on current events, however, so this isn’t entirely a bad thing. Still, as characters can really make or break a book, a little more development might not have gone amiss.

Though oddly, it was the characters of Ismael and Echo that were the most developed. Ismael I can see, because he’s a very major player in the plot, trying to reach the light of a better world by exploiting people he himself sends to their deaths. He’s a complex man who has lived for centuries, full of obsessions and quirks and a rich sense of what I can only describe as “completeness.” Echo, too, was one of the more fleshed-out characters, though she existed mostly as Ismael’s tool. She didn’t allow herself to remain a tool, however, and was a powerful opportunist. While I can’t say that I liked her as a person, she was quite an interesting power, and she had a bit of an ethical turnaround while still staying true to her nature.

For all Pratt’s demonstrated creativity in coming up with the details of the briarpatch and alternate realities and how they work, he did commit one of the major writer no-no’s by telling rather than showing. Characters sitting down and telling somebody their backstory, or taking a chapter to explain how they met so-and-so, got so frequent that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a time or two. Once or twice might be excusable. But there were times where a few sentences could have done just as well as an entire chapter, and the interludes took away from the tension of the rest of the story.

Still, I can’t deny that this was a novel that, for all it felt at times like it moved a little slowly, still kept me engaged enough to keep turning pages, wanting to know what happened next, or what new surprises lay in wait for the characters. The book didn’t need to be action-packed to be entertaining, or even to provide a sense of tension, and Pratt showed a good amount of creativity to string the readers along. This might not have been a book I would have gone out and bought sight unseen, but I’m certainly glad that I did take the time to read it, and I can say with certainty that it’s a book that at some point I will probably read again.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

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