This debut novel by the talented Benjamin Kane Ethridge can’t be said to lack ambition or originality. It runs 422 pages and doesn’t contain any vampires, zombies or serial killers. What it does have is a richly imagined, wide-ranging mythology, packed into a narrative that can’t be adequately summarized in a single sentence.
The novel’s complexity is both its primary strength and weakness. Unlike other similarly complex genre novels (see MEMORIA by Adam Pepper) that tend to get lost in their own convolutions, Benjamin Kane Etheridge keeps a tight hold on his narrative. But fully comprehending that narrative, with its downright torturous exposition, takes some doing.
It begins on Halloween night, when members of the Church of Midnight sacrifice a specially endowed person to the Church of Morning, located in a horrific dimension known as the “Old Domain,” in an effort to unite the two. The interdimensional gateway linking the two Churches opens every year on October 31, and it’s this that has apparently given rise to traditional Halloween lore. On this particular Halloween Martin and Teresa, so called “nomads” charged by the shadowy Messenger with protecting the church’s would-be victim, fail in their task.
To properly delineate the hows and whys of all this would take far more space than I’ve got. Suffice it to say that the book’s mythology is thorough and detailed: there are no loose ends that I could find. This makes for a story to which one must pay close attention, as Ethridge wisely parcels out his exposition throughout the book rather than laying it on us on one lump sum (which would be a very large sum). But getting back to the story…
It seems Martin and Teresa, who spend their lives on the road, won’t have too many more chances at thwarting the Church of Midnight’s plans, as it seems on track to finally achieving a permanent joining of the two churches. The prospective sacrifices are four infant children, to whom Martin and Teresa are guided by the Messenger’s letters. As for the Church of Midnight, it attempts to keep in telepathic contact with the nomads; however, that contact only works in clear whether, which is why Martin and Teresa stick to the cloudiest regions possible. They also have the power to telepathically conjure elaborate invisible structures called mantles to keep their pursuers at bay.
There is of course much, much more to this novel, including the unforgettable Chaplain Cloth, a horrific manifestation of a united Midnight and Morning Church; the strong characterizations of several of the Church of Midnight’s members and also the appropriately world-weary nomads; an unforgettable hallucinatory journey Martin undertakes after ingesting a shroom at the instruction of the Messenger; and the godlike Messenger himself, who reports to us in brief first person chapters. There are also episodes of breakneck action, wild sex, lively dialogue and an unusually strong and resonant conclusion.