Last month, Tor.com posted an excerpt from Awakenings, the exciting debut novel by Edward Lazellari. That post fell smack in the middle of that site’s Noir-themed week, so maybe it’s not surprising that the excerpt was the novel’s prologue, which introduces Colby, a down-on-his-luck private investigator who gets contracted by some shady — and, as soon becomes clear, truly terrifying — characters to track down a list of people for unknown purposes.
However, the noir-ish tone of that excerpt may be a bit deceptive, as Awakenings takes a completely different turn after that prologue, mostly focusing on different characters, broadening the scope of the story by a few orders of magnitude, and losing much (if not all) of the noir atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed the prologue, but it didn’t prepare me for the rest of the book, which is much more contemporary fantasy than true noir.
So, if you enjoyed the quality of the writing in that excerpt, you’re in for a treat, but if the noir thing isn’t your cup of tea, don’t be discouraged because there’s much more to Awakenings than a run-down PI in a grubby little office…
Once you get past the prologue, the novel mostly focuses on two characters who are, on the surface at least, very different. Cal MacDonnell (incidentally, one of the names on that list given to the prologue’s private investigator) is a police officer in New York. He’s successful, happily married, and has a lovely young daughter. Seth Raincrest, on the other hand, is a self-centered jerk who is quickly running out of friends, and who scrapes together a living by talking girls who need quick cash into adult photo shoots. Seemingly, the only thing Cal and Ryan have in common is that they both suffer from amnesia: they remember nothing that happened more than thirteen years ago.
As Awakenings gets started, it becomes clear that elements from their forgotten past are now resurfacing. This process will lead them on a journey that involves another dimension, an heir who may be a magical kingdom’s last hope, and a number of human and non-human allies — as well as terrifying opponents who will stop at nothing to prevent them from their mission. Aside from Cal and Ryan’s perspectives, some of the story is told from those opponents’ points of view, as well as from that of Daniel, an adopted thirteen-year-old with a mysterious birthmark, an abusive stepfather and abundant troubles at school.
Even though it’s hard to tell from the cover, Awakenings is actually the first book in a series. This is definitely one of those novels where I would have liked to see “Book One in SERIES NAME” on the cover, rather than having that information sort of hidden away at the bottom of the inside flap, as it is here. This would have given the reader the proper expectation: Awakenings is the start of a longer story and not a standalone novel. Initially the novel presents itself as contemporary fantasy, but you quickly get the idea that this entire story is mostly the opening chapter of what may turn out to be an epic fantasy that spans more than one dimension. You could call it a reverse portal fantasy, with people and magical creatures from another realm (or, to use the novel’s term, another “brane”) entering our reality, but the true situation is a bit more complex and suggests the possibility of some really exciting developments in later books in this series. I’m genuinely curious to see where Edward Lazellari will take this tale in future installments.
As a title, Awakenings is perfect for this novel, because the entire book revolves around characters coming to the realization that their lives up to this point have been, if not exactly illusions, at least just minor detours in a larger plot that started, from their point of view, a long time ago. The novel is about characters realizing that there has been a gap in their awareness and finding out about the events that transpired during that gap. Maybe most importantly, it shows them trying to figure out how to reconcile what they thought of as their normal, everyday lives with the greater destiny they are now suddenly part of. For a debut author, Edward Lazellari juggles the different arcs these characters go through with admirable skill, not only for the main players like Cal and Seth, but also e.g. Cal’s wife Catherine, who suddenly has to come to terms with the fact that her husband has, through no fault of his own, a whole other life.
The novel has some weaknesses, but surprisingly few for a debut. The magic system (if “system” even applies here) seems a bit haphazard, but that may be because the majority of the players don’t have their full capabilities (yet) and don’t really understand what’s going on for most of the book. There are one or two unfortunate puns (“eye of Newt Gingrich” as a spell ingredient being the worst one, even if it was meant as a joke) and one reference to chili — one of my favorite meals — which I will unfortunately never, ever be able to scrub from my brain again. There’s some moral grey in at least one of the main characters, but as for the opposing side, they’re all so purely evil that it’s almost cartoon-level silly, especially when compared to the subtlety of the rest of the book. And finally, the ending of this novel is on the weak side and really nothing more than a setup for the next novel. I’m sure some readers will expect something a bit more explosive to wrap up this otherwise very exciting novel, especially those people who picked this up expecting a standalone novel rather than a series opener.
Those quibbles aside, Awakenings is an intriguing and inspired debut. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough to have me eager to get my hands on the next book in this series. Edward Lazellari’s prose is confident, his characters are intriguing, and he knows how to pace the story in such a way that your attention stays focused, even with the frequent changes in perspective. He drops several hints about the broad setup of his fantasy universe, but mostly plays his cards close to the vest, leaving the reader curious about where this story will be going next. Grab a copy of Awakenings if you’re looking for a tight and thrilling contemporary fantasy that holds the promise of a dramatically widening scope in future novels. (Alternatively, grab it for the beautiful and mysterious cover illustration, which is yet another stellar job by Chris McGrath.)