With the boundaries between literary and genre fiction increasingly eroding, it’s never been a better time to explore the in-between world of speculative fiction. And these two books, one a lyrical, modern fairy tale and the other a sprawling adventure story, have deeper concerns bubbling under their magical surfaces than you might expect.
A SURPRISINGLY TIMELY FAIRY TALE
Victor LaValle’s The Changeling is, on the surface, a lyrical modern-day fairy tale. In the opening chapters, Apollo Kagwa meets, marries and has a baby with librarian Emma Valentine. Apollo, who is haunted by his absentee father, throws himself into raising baby Brian with gusto. But Emma becomes more and more withdrawn, and what initially looks like post-partum depression turns out to be a growing suspicion that Brian is not a real baby. When Emma goes to terrible lengths to prove herself right and then disappears, Apollo decides to hunt her down and take revenge on behalf of their son.
For most of the novel, LaValle sits at a distance, intruding into Apollo’s mind only in moments of great feeling or to take stock, and otherwise letting the tale play out. His remove prevents the whimsy inherent to such a tale from overshadowing the darkness at its heart, and stylistically ties his novel to the Grimms’ fairy tales that inspired it. Like those stories, The Changeling can be read as literal, symbolic or both, with moments that function better the more one accepts the dream logic of the novel.
Just when the novel begins to look like a disappointingly shallow update—a modern setting with retrograde themes bubbling beneath it—LaValle uses the reader’s assumptions against them, laying the foundation for a more complex take on the changeling myth. As Apollo travels further into the underworld of New York and the novel moves ever deeper into outright fantasy, LaValle’s true concerns slowly unfurl.
At its core, The Changeling is a story about colonization and oppression, with a clear awareness of racial and gender dynamics that reveals the ugliness of assuming Western European superiority over immigrants like Apollo’s Ugandan mother, or male superiority over women. And it does it all in a gritty, chilly New York City where monsters and warrior women lurk in dark corners—an alternate city that for all its fairy-tale wonder feels startlingly immediate.
Careful and deliberate in its setup, LaValle’s novel is a magic trick that earns every bit of wonder. It’s so compelling that you won’t be able to look away, even at its darkest moments.
BACK TO THE FUTURE (WITH WITCHES)
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a 700-page collaboration between master of sci-fi Neal Stephenson and historical fiction writer Nicole Galland, is about a secret government organization that sets out to use magic and time travel against America’s enemies. It’s a setup that absolutely should not work. And yet somehow, D.O.D.O. is entertaining and sprightly, gleefully skipping through its fast-paced plot, scattering character grace notes and barbed critiques of government overreach with aplomb.
Historian Melisande Stokes is approached by military intelligence operative Tristan Lyons to help the U.S. government in a seemingly insane quest—to bring back magic. Galland and Stephenson ground the premise of the novel in realistic science, which leads to a few fairly dry passages but may be necessary given how very silly the concept could have been in lesser hands. In the world of D.O.D.O., magic was real until the 19th century, when witches’ power rapidly decreased until it completely sputtered out. In the present day, the United States government wants to build a machine that allows witches to practice magic—specifically time travel so that operatives can make changes in the past that affect the future.
Stephenson and Galland construct a web of fascinating personalities, all with divergent motivations and moralities. Due to a framing device in the beginning of the novel, it is clear that at some point one or multiple characters will betray Mel and Tristan, stranding them in different eras. However, the reader may be so distracted by the sheer fun of D.O.D.O.’s time-traveling exploits—which include jaunts to Elizabethan England, Constantinople on the eve of the Fourth Crusade and, in one instance, a spectacular joke that’s quite literally hundreds of pages in the making—that they could forget that it’s coming.
Stephenson and Galland seed character development and lay the groundwork for the novel’s many twists within these trips through time, using their immersive renderings and deepening character development to direct their readers’ attention away from the growing danger that Tristan and Mel invite into their own organization. And when the villain is eventually revealed, it’s a character so deliciously entertaining and engaging that readers may very well find themselves sympathetic to their cause.