Book Review: It Devours!
If you enjoy strange stories and stories with a bizarre, sometimes absurdist sense of humor, you'd better be listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. And if podcasts aren't your thing, then you had better be reading the books.
It Devours!, the second novel from the Welcome to Night Vale team of Cranor and Fink, tells the story of Nilanjana, a scientist who moved to Night Vale to study America's most interesting town. Strange earthquakes and sinkholes are popping up all over, swallowing up Night Vale citizens. They might be connected to the house that isn't real, which is in fact a doorway to a desert otherworld, or they might be connected to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, which worships a giant centipede that will devour us (and therefore also our sins). Only Nilanjana can find out, with the help of the scientific method and Darryl, a Congregation member well on his way to becoming her boyfriend.
It Devours! is so much better than Welcome to Night Vale (the 2015 book, not the podcast). Where that novel felt too much like it had to shoehorn in things from the podcast, It Devours! feels entirely free of that obligation and all the better for it. The story flows freely and well, and before you know it, you'll have devoured the book in one sitting (see what I did there?).
Fink and Cranor excel at building likeable characters - it's part of why the podcast is so popular. That hasn't changed with the release of this novel. Nilanjana is our viewpoint for most of the novel and what a viewpoint it is. Nilanjana's POV is so indicative of how she views the world (e.g., constantly forming hypotheses and collecting evidence). In third person, it can be a struggle to nail down distinct voices, but Nilanjana is very memorable.
Darryl is equally well-drawn, the perfect foil to Nilanjana not only as a romantic lead but as the antithesis of everything she stands for as a scientist. He's the true believer, who doesn't need proof, who takes things on faith. Granted, that faith is in a god that wants to devour our sins and the world, but Darryl has reasons for enjoying the church, and they boil down to the thing Nilanjana doesn't have: community.
Other well-known Night Vale characters flit in and out of the novel, and fans of the podcast will be well rewarded (though knowledge of the podcast isn't required). Larry Leroy out on the edge of town makes an appearance, as does one of the Erikas. Carlos is a pivotal part of the novel. Even Cecil appears briefly, though the Voice of Night Vale doesn't actually speak here like he did in the 2015 book.
And on that note, before I move on, a word. Another reviewer pointed out that Carlos and Cecil's relationship is quietly stunning, and I have to agree. They're the ideal of romantic love, not because they're perfect or their relationship is perfect, but because they continuously affirm and reaffirm that love. It's rare to see such a beautiful relationship in fiction, let alone a homosexual one that's drawn in such exquisite detail. Kudos, Fink and Cranor.
Fink and Cranor's prose has the same airy, ethereal and otherworldly quality that their writing for the podcast has. It lends itself well to a novel, and there are many memorable sections of the book. The novel is also more than a little humorous, and I laughed out loud in several places.
As I alluded to above, the plot moves quickly, tearing around Night Vale as Nilanjana investigates. Fink and Cranor layer multiple red herrings into the story, so even when you think you might know what's going on, there's another clue for you to find.
It also centers on one of the eternal debates: science vs. religion. As Nilanjana and Darryl uncover the plot surrounding the Smiling God and the mysterious sinkholes swallowing Night Vale, the book asks poignant questions about the pros and cons of both science and religion. It manages to do so without taking sides, showing the importance of questioning and learning but also the power of faith to do good.
[SPOILER ALERT - DO NOT READ THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT THE END REVEALED]
And with the death of the Smiling God, Darryl shows us that sometimes the truth is not what matters. What matters is happiness and increasing the good in the world. It reminds me of the the Broadway show The Book of Mormon, which had a similar touching message about faith, truth and happiness.
[END SPOILER - YOU CAN COME BACK NOW]
At the end of the day, It Devours! is one of my favorite books this year. It takes a strong set of individual elements and assembles them into a powerful, moving story. I highly recommend this one, folks - particularly if you like the podcast already.