Review: Briarpatch, by Tim Pratt

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

“Oh, hell,” Arturo said softly. “This is all new to you? I thought you were, you know, a seasoned traveler, that you just stumbled onto the wrong path. But, what, today, this is your first time in the briarpatch?”

“The briarpatch,” Darrin repeated. “You said that before.”

Arturo nodded. “It’s what some people call, ah, the place, or the whole combination of places, the paths and roads and bridges some people can reach from this world. I dunno what it really is. I’ve heard some people say it’s God’s maintenance tunnels, or worlds that got half-built and then abandoned, or worlds that might have happened, if things had been a little bit different.” He glanced at the bartender. “Or, you know, a lot different. Some places in the briarpatch don’t last long, and those are the weirdest places, the ones that aren’t very plausible at all, and I’ve seen some demented shit, lemme tell you, but lots of paths are stable. You can use them to get from one place to another in this world, there are some great shortcuts, but that’s not all. The briarpatch… there are secrets in there, if you can get in deep enough to find them. Wonderful stuff. Dangerous stuff. But, shit, it’s big, and hard to navigate.” Arturo went silent, tipping his half-empty pint glass from side to side, watching the beer move around inside. Long speeches didn’t seem to suit him.

***

Ismael Plenty, the Jim Jones/David Koresh stand-in for Tim Pratt’s Briarpatch, is as charismatic and effortlessly convincing as any would-be saviour with a God complex. Two items, however, separate our future poison-spiked Kool-Aid dispenser from his thankfully deceased contemporaries: Ismael actually is immortal, and in no way does he believe suicide will open the door to your salvation. His salvation, yes. Maybe yours, if you’re lucky, but when all is said and done, that is of little concern to Ismael.

As a child of the briarpatch—an indefinable, surreal desert hidden between the lines of our world, the real world—Ismael has seen and suffered enough to want to shake the bonds of his immortal life and travel to the light of paradise that lies beyond. But he cannot make his escape without help, without being guided to the bridge that will take him to the light and whatever is or isn’t on the other side. To this end, he needs the faithful and despondent, those primed for suicide, to help him find his way.

As the primary antagonist of Briarpatch, Ismael is a compellingly selfish son of a bitch whose desire to abandon an immortal life trumps the lives of all those he hurts along the way—including our hero, Darrin, and his girlfriend-of-a-time, Bridget. Always seeking new and exciting experiences, Bridget is won over by Ismael’s promises of salvation. Upon showing her the briarpatch, the mystical realm that runs beneath the surface of the real world, he convinces Bridget to take her own life, to remove all ties to her current reality in an attempt to cross over into the great fuzzy white light of happiness. Through several chance encounters that follow Bridget’s demise, Darrin is pulled deeper and deeper into a darkness he can’t escape as he seeks to discover the nature of his former love’s suicidal actions, and to confront Ismael in the process.

Briarpatch’s take on urban fantasy is refreshing, and succeeds more often than not. With the suicide-as-salvation concept at its heart, the narrative is darker than most, but not overwhelmingly so. The character of Ismael, while interesting in his mannerisms, is somewhat smothered in the end by his overall ambition, which, when boiled down to its essentials, is little more than that of a disgruntled zealot with a death wish of his own. Fortunately, the remaining cast—Darrin, Bridget, Orville, Arturo, the delightfully psychopathic Echo, the conniving, spineless Nicholas, and the silent but continuously intriguing Wendigo (a sentient beast of a car)—makes up for Ismael’s surprising simplicity.

The briarpatch itself is an interesting concept, though at times feels a little closely cribbed from the city-as-God of Clive Barker’s Imajica. With this concept at the core of the story, it’s unfortunate that the novel itself—barely 250 pages—is so bereft of detail. Ismael and Darrin’s conflict is fairly straightforward, but the briarpatch and everything that surrounds it is less than cohesive. Feeling more like a string of concepts thrown together than a living, breathing idea of a world with a pulse of its own, Briarpatch’s tallest hurdles come with its seemingly random nature and abundance of coincidences. Nowhere is this more prominent than a late-in-the-book meeting in which two characters remark on how utterly and unrealistically coincidental their meeting is. It’s as if Obi-Wan turned to Luke one day and said, “Wow, it’s pretty incredible that we have this entire galaxy in which everyone seems to somehow run into everyone else. I mean did you know Boba Fett was even involved in the Clone Wars? Dude was a kid, but still, he was there. Oh, and your dad built C-3P0. Wild, right?” It’s difficult not to see where the book was unfortunately cut short—where months will pass over pages, sacrificing so much world building that I wish had taken place in lieu of simple passages that round up what was covered in the same span of time. It’s as if we’re being given a set of Cliff Notes to catch us up on the world’s history before steamrolling into the final conflict.

I don’t wish to be too negative, however, because problems with the book’s final third aside, I still powered through to the end and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Had certain things been expanded upon—like the Wendigo and the nature of the briarpatch itself—this book might have been something truly special. As it stands, Briarpatch is urban fantasy-light that, through the strength of its core ideas, adds up to being a bit more than the sum of its parts. Given another stab at this universe, I’d love to see what Pratt could come up with. Briarpatch is potentially an interesting blueprint, though a great deal of detail and fleshing out is still needed.

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