Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Kathe Koja's The Cipher

Read Kathe Koja's The Cipher yesterday, which won the Bram Stoker in '91, among other awards, and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick. I mention the awards first because it will give you a clue as to the nature of the novel: intense, horrifying speculative fiction. Young Nicholas and his sometimes-girlfriend, Nakota, discover a black hole in the janitorial closet of his apartment building one night. Not too large, square-shaped, and black beyond black. Nakota is instantly fascinated, and while her fascination turns to obsession and becomes--extremely quickly--darker by degree, Nicholas is more or less along for the ride.

Until he accidentally touches it.

You're pulled into the story right away, dropped right into awful happenings, and Koja lets you know you're in for a roller coaster of terror. And then she makes good on it. Because of course, someone has to put things in it, someone must touch it, and the mystery and tension and horror can only grow, spiraling into sick, twisted desperation.

Ultimately, it's not about a black hole--it's about loneliness, about marginalization, about outsider culture, and about the darkness inside all of us. But except for the last couple of pages, you're never hit over the head with it. The Cipher could easily sit beside Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

If I've got a quibble, it's that I don't care for Koja's writing style. I previously read Under the Poppy, an alt-historical fiction that has some of these same themes, and I honestly hated it. But let me state that Koja has many fans, who adore her style, and find it "lush," "evocative," etc.

And be aware, it's a mindfuck. Big time. Made me have weird, weird dreams last night.

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