So. Mr. Arvin's book was recommended to me by a dear friend who said it was just the sort of thing I might like - fantasy, but dark. Complicated. Oh. yes. It is that and so much more.
Probably the best way to start is to state what this book is not. I truly think that readers often ruin their enjoyment of a work by bringing too many preconceived notions about what the work should be with them. You can't hear the melody if you're tapping out percussion to another song. This is not a M/M erotic piece. If you come to this story looking for hot monkey sex, you will be disappointed. This is not gay romance. It is a roman in the old sense of the word, and there are gay couples contained within, their love stories integrated into the tale, but it is not romance. Leave that at the door.
It is also not a diatribe against religion. There may be some temptation to glance at the surface and find this, but that would be dipping your toe into the Pacific and declaring it small because it didn't get your whole foot wet.
What is it then? This is a complex literary fantasy full of archetypal symbolism reminiscent of the dreamlike works of Paul Hazel. It skims around the edges of magical realism, broody and twisting as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is a parable of the dangers of extremism, of blind faith and of how drastically our world changes with our perceptions of it. It is a warning against the destructive temptations of power and of forgetting that we are the stewards of this world we've been granted, not its masters.
The valley could be anywhere and it is nowhere. The human characters are all achingly flawed, each in his or her own way. The limited omniscient viewpoint is a daring choice in modern literature but it allows us to tag along for each character's decisions. While we never know everything, each character gets to keep some secrets, we understand their actions and their inaction, their hesitations and headlong charges. There is terrible evil here but not that of a single human villain. No, this antagonist is one of ideas, of obsession, of the consuming blind hunger the need for power creates.
It all could have been so silly. So melodramatic. But Mr. Arvin's prose winds and leaps like the river running through the story. Unexpected word choices, beautiful turns of phrase keep the reader buoyed and delighted. (Once in a while, I did find the unusual phrases a bit over the top e.g. "the pretty little cupcake with the chunky vomitous filling" but jarring moments were incredibly few and far between.) It does start slowly, gradually, almost lulling the reader into complacency. Do hang on. The ever-increasing avalanche gathers quickly and will leave you breathless by the end. A caution though with unusual word choices - I think the editors became a bit flummoxed toward the end. There are some actual errors in the last couple of chapters that I had to puzzle over, wondering if the incorrect homonym really did work in that sentence.
The meat and bones and soul of this work are what matter, though. There is horror and wonder here in equal measure, a story of heroes as ancient as stories themselves and yet delivered in such a way that we forget we have heard this before. And then it reminds us that we have heard it all over again and reminds us why it's so important to remember.
Thank you, Eric Arvin, for a transportive, transcendent read. This will have pride of place on my top shelf next to Eco and Rushdie.