The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams

Published by Pyr
April 2006
Hardcover, 509 pages
Books of Cataclysm: One
ISBN: 1-59102-438-2

In The Crooked Letter, Sean Williams explores the nature of life, death, and reality. Big subjects, but with the precision of an archaeological expert, Williams is more than up to the task. There is a lot to admire in Williams epic fantasy, the wide range of global religions and myths of which, his afterlife is comprised, to the characterization of the protagonists. The story has the mythic resonance of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and American Gods, the dark fantasy/horror one might associate with something like Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga, the multiple universes/realities of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, and the strange, weird creatures one might associate with China Miéville’s Bas-lag novels. Williams imagined world is equal part those novels which preceded his, but fortunately, there is enough newness to both the approach and vision to make this the work of a singular vision.

Williams’s story begins with an end, that is, the death of Seth Castillo, one of the twin protagonists. His brother, Hadrian is left in shock, flung from a concrete, grounded reality of a train-ride gone awry, to being hunted by monsters and creatures out of fantasy, as he explores a world struck by a Cataclysm. Williams charts both brothers’ journeys, as they come to grips with the fascinating and dark world they now inhabit, as a result of Seth’s death. While Seth was murdered, his ‘soul’ is transported to the Second Realm, the afterlife of Williams’ intricately detailed afterlife. When I first opened the book, I was expecting an epic fantasy. While the scope of the novel and range of characters lends itself to such a description, pigeon-holing the book in such a category does a disservice to the book and to Williams. On every page, it becomes very evident that Williams is playing with a different set of rules. The darkness of the events, as well as the tone of the book elicited more of a horror feel for me, as I continued to follow Seth and Hadrian’s plight.

I compare Williams to Gaiman, because of the higher, godlike powers at play, moving around behind the humans. With the King and Moorcock comparison, I see a parallel between the vast cosmos of reality Williams hints at in this, the first Book of the Cataclysm. With the Mieville comparison, I see a vast canvas of strange inhuman characters rarely encountered across epic speculative fiction; that is monsters/creatures outside of the typical elf, dragon, ogre varieties. All these other other authors, in their bodies of work, evoke a sense of horror, dread, and horrific bodily harm in their literature, the same can be said with what Williams is doing here.

My only other reading experience with Sean Williams was his Force Heretic trilogy for the Star Wars: New Jedi Order saga, co-authored with frequent collaborator Shane Dix. Based on that, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, as those three books left me rather non-plussed. However, reading many of the other titles Lou Anders has published with Pyr, I shouldn’t have been surprised with both the quality of the writing and the breadth of Williams’ imagination. Like a lot of the other books published by Pyr, Williams captures what makes a tried and true genre like Epic Fantasy so popular and enjoyable of a genre and spins a tale with his unique voice. This is the type of book you finish and can’t wait to read the sequel. I only have to wait until October to read the next installment, The Blood Debt. In the interim, I will try to get my hands on his other books.

Again, the physical book is quite impressive. I realize the cover and packaging mimics the Australian edition, published a couple of years ago, but that makes the Greg Bridges cover no less fascinating. In a year that is proving to be an interesting and enjoyable one for Fantasy and Science Fiction, Williams’s The Crooked Letter is near the top of my list as the year approaches the half-way mark.


© 2006 Rob H. Bedford

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