Max Gladstone spins a story from the perspective of several unreliable narrators in Last Exit. That unreliability is the point in this standalone fantasy, which is intentionally cerebral and difficult to follow. The dynamics of alternate dimensions and conflicting viewpoints are not background to the plot: They are the plot.
Set in modern-day America, Last Exit revolves around alternate dimensions, nicknamed alts. Alts can only be visited with the help of spin: an individual’s understanding of possibility. If someone has a limited belief in what is possible, then they will only see what is currently in front of them. But if you can overcome skepticism and accept various possibilities, you can force possibilities to materialize. A door that should be locked just happens to be unlocked.
Zelda, Ish, Ramon, Sarah and Sal were once a dimension-hopping fellowship, fighting a mysterious rot that corroded worlds. The group imploded after the loss of Sal, and Last Exit begins as Zelda, convinced that Sal isn’t lost forever, tries to get everyone back together to save Sal and defeat the rot once and for all. The realistic rifts between characters, conveyed via broody monologuing from each unique perspective, allow readers to compare each person’s opinions, providing a rich depth of relationships for readers to explore despite the relatively limited core cast. Last Exit has a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere, with the rot barely giving Zelda and her companions room to recover, but the compelling protagonists keep things engaging.
Gladstone avoids in-depth detail, leaving the reader to conceptualize a scene by leaning on their imagination (their spin, you might say) to flesh out the details. For example, Gladstone uses the phrase “cracked the sky” with no description of the crack’s appearance or its effect on the rest of the skyline. He then reuses the phrase multiple times, challenging the reader to recall their own mental imagery. As a result, Last Exit is a book enriched through sharing; it’s easy to see a book club discussing their varied interpretations of this phrase.
The beginning of Last Exit feels like the start of an archeologist’s excavation: new clues are popping up in unexpected places and nothing makes sense. But that process of discovery and excavation is where Gladstone’s novel shines, as each chapter revises and adjusts the reader’s understanding. By the end of the book, their individual vision of Gladstone’s world reaches something like clarity, enough for the intrepid archeologist to piece together most of the picture. While not a light undertaking, Last Exit is a satisfying read for those with a lot of imagination—and a little spin.