Iíve read quite a few Alexander C. Irvine stories, including the prologue to The Narrows that appeared in a science fiction magazine a year or so ago. Heís always been a hit-or-miss writer with me. I enjoy quite a few of them, but others I bounce off of completely. Now that Iíve had the chance to read the actual novel of The Narrows, I can say that it has many of the qualities that often keep me away from his work, but it manages to engross me and keep me reading despite that. With an intriguing concept and some deep characterization, you canít go wrong trying this one out.
Jared Cleaves is a Detroit factory worker at the beginning of World War II. Heís not working on airplane engines or jeeps or anything like that, though. Heís part of a top-secret crew in formerly-abandoned Building G in Henry Fordís factory - a building where golems are built to take on the Nazi empire. In a world where golems are real and frost giants are thought to be aiding the German war machine, magic truly exists, including the chaotic dwarf known as Nain Rouge, whose appearance to anybody in any city means that death and destruction is coming. Jared saw the dwarf when he was a child and injured the fingers that are keeping him out of the war. Now a secret government organization wants to know everything about the dwarf, German spies are everywhere, and a shape-shifting Indian shaman may be Jaredís only true friend. What has he gotten himself involved in now? And will it mean the destruction of Detroit?
Irvine excels at characterization, and The Narrows definitely showcases that. He intricately examines every aspect of Jaredís character, from his relationship with his two-year-old daughter to the stresses these events put on his troubled marriage to his attempts to just do something for the war effort since he canít be off fighting. The novel moves slowly because of this, as Jared blunders into espionage and conflicting government factions. All through this, we watch Jared make mistakes, lament his situation, and then realize that only he can do something about it.
The other characters are vivid as well. Jaredís parents, especially father Marty, are beautifully rendered in a down-home manner. His mother-in-law is suitably snooty, thinking that her daughter could have done better than this factory worker who canít even help with the war effort. His relationship with his daughter is wonderfully portrayed, showing us a man who dearly loves his family and finds himself in a situation that may put them all in danger. The Indian shaman is a joy, some comic relief in this otherwise bleak world.
The Narrows reeks of atmosphere as well. Irvine sets his scenes beautifully: anything happening in the foundry feel oppressive, the factory setting where Jared and his co-workers sift through the clay so that no metal objects affect the creation of the golems feels tedious and dirty, and the neighborhoods where Jared walks feel lived-in and rundown. When Jared goes to the Foundry to find a black man who may be able to help him with his magical problem, we feel the intensity of the heat as molten metal is poured to make vehicles. Thereís also a baseball motif that runs through the novel as Jared and his father often go to ball games, and many of the characters talk about how the Detroit Tigers are doing.
The concept behind the novel is engaging, but part of me hopes for a less intimate book that explores it further. We hear about battles involving giants and other magical creatures. Jared often watches newsreels and wonders whether heíll be able to spot a golem among the American troops. This world where magic lives side-by-side with normal reality, where the war happens just as it happened in our world but with a little magical help, is intriguing, and I often wished to hear more about it.
The Narrows isnít a perfect book, though. Its pace, especially at the beginning, is horrendously slow. I found the characterization great enough to get me through for a while, but I soon wanted something to actually happen. We see a lot of Jaredís introspection into his various situations, and it eventually starts to plod. After the slow movement of the rest of the novel, the climax is far too busy and chaotic, enough so to lose track of some of the events as they are happening. And while some of the Dwarfís antics were funny, I got a little tired of the concentration on its malleable private parts (though one scene involving them is particularly hilarious).
The Narrows is a very good novel that I greatly enjoyed. Action fans can go elsewhere, but if you want some intricate characterization and great prose along with interesting situations that will keep you reading, this is definitely a novel for you.