The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud
The Homecoming by Carsten Stroud (Knopf, 2013) is the second in the Niceville Trilogy and, for once, this fact caught be completely unprepared as I came in without having read the first. The problem, you see, lies in the difference between three books which, in a general way, continue the plot, and a single story that just happens to be spread over three books. Put another way, I now know this book starts immediately after the first book ended. Under normal circumstances, you can open any book at the first page and either the author provides a convenient preface in which the previous novel is summarised, or there are explanatory elements written into the immediate book whenever an understanding of past events is relevant. In this case, it didn’t seem to matter. I was quickly into an immensely pleasing police procedural and galloping along at a rapid pace. There were odd moments when I wasn’t entirely sure what the significance of a sentence might be but, in the general run of things, I was enjoying myself.
Then I got all confused.
I was suddenly confronted by the undeniable fact this plot is profoundly supernatural and, later, may even have a time travel element.
Wow! I didn’t see that coming. So it’s on to the internet to get some idea of what Niceville, the first in the series, was all about. In my opinion, this research effort should not have been necessary. An author should help out people like me by having greater exposition in the early phases of the book so we are not wrong-footed when the book pivots into an unexpected genre. With a better grasp of past events, I then read this book to the end.
So where does this leave us? The prose in the police procedural elements is outstanding. There’s a real sense of the camaraderie between the officers in both the police and FBI, and fairly considerable wit in the way their work is described. As and when the supernatural rears its head, the prose grows more subdued and the humour darker. The set pieces involving a major police chase, an infiltration and confrontation to deal with a hostage situation, and the defence of a house in an exposed country position are classic examples of tight plotting and precisely executed thriller writing. Some of the supernatural elements are slightly more diffuse because it’s in the nature of the genre that “creatures” and “beings” able to interact with humans are less tangible. Descriptions must therefore be left more vague and events described with more circumspection.
At a technical level, the plot is very well managed. All the major elements that can be resolved are clearly ended. Some are obviously carried into the concluding volume to come. And then there are the distinctly mystery/puzzle elements that may not be capable of explanation because of their supernatural or science fictional nature(s). We may just have to accept them as inexplicable. So I definitely rate the police procedural elements as among the best I’ve read this year. The primary characters are given the space to develop and, despite the increasingly incomprehensible events going on around them, their behaviour is plausible. Even the children who are important retain their credibility. As to the supernatural and horror elements, the major focus seems to be on some fairly well-established tropes involving possession and the use of mirrors with some fairly standard ghosts visible to some who live in Niceville itself and the surrounding townships. My uncertainty revolves around the apparent time travel. This is the fantasy and not the science fictional version, there being no characters called H G Wells with an appropriate machine to move people around. I’m always faintly uncomfortable when people or things appear able to bend time around themselves and skip from one moment to another (and back again) by an exercise of will or with help from an outside agency. This didn’t spoil the book for me. I’m just left with the need to read the third book which is called The Reckoning and due out in 2014, to see how this element will be resolved. This leaves me praising the book, but I have the sense I would be ranking it as one of the best books of the year if I had read Niceville. The moral of all this is not to read The Homecoming first.
A copy of this book was sent to me to review.