Four Kings – M.D. Elster

One night – in 1945, long before Harvey, long before Katrina – a hurricane came to New Orleans. A tree fell on a house, a girl is injured – and a man, the girl’s stepfather, is shot. As Macbeth says, “It was a rough night”.

The girl, 14-year-old Anaïs Reynard, wakes up in an asylum, and soon learns that she is the only witness to her stepfather’s shooting. He’s not dead, but he’s still unconscious, and Anaïs is needed to testify so that the person they have in custody can be put away; unfortunately, she remembers nothing, and so undergoes intensive daily therapy to try to bring the memories back. The doctor keeps talking about electroshock therapy, which has the girl desperate to dredge up something. (I couldn’t help wondering if she should have been as terrified by the prospect of electroshock as she was. Were the probable terrible effects known in 1945?)

Anaïs begins to see a strange man about the asylum – very strange: he is a man with the head of a fox. One night she chases him through the halls, clutching a key that she found in her bed, and ends up letting herself through a door in the basement, emerging into a landscape that does not belong to New Orleans: the Land of the Four Kings. Her pursuit of the fox-man leads her to a glade filled with animal-headed people; come to find out, the fox led her there on purpose. Human girls are being found dead and drained of blood in this land, human blood having powerful properties, and the fox – Mr. Fletcher – hopes that she will be the key to finding out who’s responsible. (That never really made solid sense to me.)

I started the book expecting to be blown away by a surreal, darkly beautiful tale; something about the description warned me that this was a book with claws, which would leave marks. Well … a few folk in the book have claws, but really this was a rather earnest cross between Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Drew. There were aspects of the correlations between the world of the asylum and the fantasy world that I liked: the echoes in the animal-headed people to the background cast of Anaïs’s life; things like the “Hall of Chequers” when “only hours earlier I was watching my fellow asylum patients play this very game” – basically, the more subtle touches. It was when the book came right out and told me “hey! Look at the parallel!” that I was put off. “She reminds me of Colette”. OK. Thanks for spelling it out.

From very early on, I had a prime suspect in both the human world – and very shortly after, based on Anaïs’s reactions, in the fantasy world. It seemed obvious, though obviously not to the book’s characters. I can’t say I was right – but I can say that I was absolutely manipulated into being wrong. (At one point Anaïs states that one person is beyond suspicion, so I immediately suspected that person more than anyone.) Based on the way the characters were described by the narrator there was no way I could have guessed the truth. In other words, the author didn’t play entirely fair.

I wish there had been hints scattered somewhere in the text as to whether Anaïs is really slipping away into this fantastical world, or whether it’s all a stress-and-terror-induced hallucination. Something that happens to her in the other world is referenced in the asylum, but it’s shrugged off by Anaïs and ignored by everyone else; just once I wanted someone to remark on her grass-stained clothes or scratched-up feet. Actually, it’s pretty clear that it is all in her mind, as three of the four kings whose palaces she visits send her off to be given attire more appropriate for court – yet, without changing into her hospital clothing (or, if she does, without taking off the outerwear she didn’t have on when she went to bed), still she wakes up wearing attire more appropriate for the asylum. I really don’t understand the corollary between several dead girls – including fellow patients – in the fantasy world and one uncle with a gunshot wound in the real world; and of course the perpetrators don’t correlate at all. So … what was the point?

I was also a bit disappointed in how easily Anaïs adapts to others’ suspicions in both worlds. Jules, with whom she had a budding romance in this human world, is the person under arrest for shooting her stepfather? Oh. Gosh, I wouldn’t expect him to have done it. Oh well. Someone she began to like and trust in the Land of the Four Kings is about to be executed for the killings there? Oh. Never saw that coming. Oh well.

In the writer’s very brief biography she (she?) boasts of being a best-selling traditionally-published writer, and it surprised me. There was a lot about the writing in this book that smacked of a much less experienced writer: painful homophones, weird almost-right words (“I can still smell the shaving lather that was inevitably washed from his face only minutes earlier” – inevitably?), tense slips, wrong pronoun use, too-close echoes of phrases – and, most of all, absolutely improbable vocabulary from a fourteen year-old girl in 1945. The girl knowledgeably talks about extroverts and body language and the dynamics of her relationships and air molecules and adrenaline…

At one point she talks about being able to identify the killer in the real world – when, in fact, no one was killed in the real world. And I’m pretty sure that you can’t tourniquet a chest wound, as Anaïs helps to do at one point.

(I don’t even want to talk about “collared greens”.)

The girl readily identifies all the animals represented in the fantasy world: the basics like owls and rabbits and ravens were believable to me, but I question whether this 40’s teenaged girl would be able to pick out a civet or a Rhesus macaque (I couldn’t, and I grew up with Wild Animal Cards). I’m not even sure a girl who grew up in Bavaria and only recently came to the US via England would know a cougar from a panther.

And it’s just odd that the idea of animal-headed people is tossed out there, but little real detail is given. These folks stand about with wine glasses – but how do they drink from them? For that matter, how do they speak? At one point a “troop of children” is mentioned, but absolutely no description is given. Do they age like human children, needing supervision for several years, or are they like animal young, able to run within a short time of birth? And how did the Old Cwen, a harpy with the head of an elderly woman, give birth to the Young Cwen, who is a sphinx? (I could absolutely be wrong, but I don’t remember harpies being any part of Egyptian mythology; they’re Greek, no?) It’s not vital to the plot, any of this – but it’s an interesting gimmick, and I wish there had been more depth to it.

One moment struck a deeply odd chord with me, as an ermine-headed female is depicted “in the middle of the stage in a very tight, low-cut silk robe, singing into a microphone. …She is, in her own curious, animal-headed fashion, very sexy.” And all I could think of was Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK.I wonder if that was intentional.

Anyway. The book did not live up to the fascinating, creepy-cool animal-head images scattered throughout the book. I really wish it had. Disappointing. And … well, was there a reason that the Raven King’s image (used on the cover) is a manipulation of a famous photo of Edwin Booth? It’s in the public domain, it seems, but … I don’t know. I’d like for there to be some sense to it.

One final note on something which people seem to get wrong more and more often, and it drives me insane: Please, please, please, anyone who is writing anything, I’m begging you to learn the difference between “lay” and “lie”. You lie down. You don’t lay down. Unless you’re laying something down, or it’s past tense, “lay” is wrong. You lay your book on the table. When you go to bed you lie down. Yesterday you lay down. At least pretend to care.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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