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Walking the Labyrinth Hardcover – June, 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
Contemporary fantasy isn't Goldstein's forte. Her historical and otherworldly reveries (Summer King, Winter Fool, etc.) can dazzle, but the modern world seems to confound her storytelling in this novel set in today's San Francisco, just as it did in Tourists (1989). Here, odd-job typist Molly Travers is searching for her mysterious ancestors. Through a series of increasingly unlikely coincidences, she learns that she is a descendant of the Allalie clan. Originally adepts of the 19th-century English Order of the Labyrinth, the Allalies migrated in the 1930s to the American vaudeville stage, where they used their assorted extrasensory talents to "change people's lives." Molly's journey takes her on a magical mystery tour, but it's one in which Goldstein fumbles the cards and drops the white rabbit on the floor. Her prose is flat and arhythmic, with the many family diaries and letters that Molly discovers revealing the author's ignorance of Victorian locution. The characters are simple, and the plotting is obvious. There's some charm to Molly's discovery of magic in the everyday world, but it's not enough to make this one of Goldstein's memorable outings. Hopefully her next will forsake our world for a more enchanted one.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Molly Travers is working a temp job in San Francisco when she discovers that she is descended from a 19th-century vaudeville and magic troupe. Raised by a maiden great-aunt after her parents died in a car accident, she learns from private detective John Stow that she has relatives she's never known about. As she and Stow investigate her family history, they discover a dark secret intertwined with the occultist Order of the Labyrinth. This thoughtful journey of self-discovery is highly recommended for realistic fantasy collections.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
Much like a labyrinth, the story has a lot of twists and turns, and it’s hard to tell sometimes just how close to the truth you really are. Molly experiences this plenty of times through the story, which does get a little tiring when it turns into a round of, “Did Fentrice do it? No, she couldn’t have, because of this thing. Oh, but then there’s this thing! Did Fentrice do it after all?” It’s a good question. Did she do what she’s being accused of? Who is telling the truth, and is it the whole truth? But the circular nature of half the arguments make it difficult to keep track of what I’m even supposed to be mentally debating at times.
As with the last work I read by Goldstein, I found the historical aspect of this novel to be quite fascinating. Everything historical was told through diaries and letters rather than through dialogue or from a character actually being there, which weirdly appeals to me. Finding out about the Order of the Labyrinth and how that turned from a secret society devoted to the supernatural and philosophy in England to a traveling magic show in America was definitely a fun journey to embark upon.
Though I could have done with a couple of characters now and again who hadn’t heard of the Order. Everyone they asked had heard about them, despite them being a secret society that’s really only mentioned in one pamphlet and a couple of family documents. Everything tied in so neatly that it stretched the bounds of credulity.
Part of the problem I had with this book, though, was the rather meandering nature of the plot. The pacing wasn’t that great, meaning that you’d spend pages and pages reading diary entries of life and family affairs in a traveling show, then BAM, major plot development with Molly’s family that has roughly the same amount of book space devoted to it. You’d get used to one pace and then suddenly it would switch, and it was never the same twice.
This could have been a wonderful way of showing that things aren’t what they seem and that life throws you curveballs all the time, a meta-commentary on the events of the story themselves, but it didn’t really come across that way. It came across, unfortunately, as just poor pacing, and I suspect my suddenly thought about it having deeper implications was just my habit of overthinking things and finding connections where there are none.
But the story itself was pretty good, and an interesting blend of the old and the new, an exploration of the psychic craze that swept England in the 1800s and a connection to the more mundane aspects of modern day. I like the ideas that Goldstein played with here, and it was really only the pacing issues that kept me from enjoying it all more.
Walking the Labyrinth is a quick read, only around 200 pages, and when the pacing is even it’s so easy to fall into the story and get caught up in everything. It’s intelligent, prompts personal reflection, and is a good exploration of someone uncovering that her family has far more to it than she ever gave thought to. Not Goldstein’s best work, but still worth reading, and it definitely stands the test of time better than many urban fantasies that I’ve read from the 1990s (the edition I read was a digital reprint rather than the original publication). Worth checking out if you like some history with your mystery!
The story somewhat toggles between the present (which, I think, is in the 90s somewhere) and past but the only pure flashback is at the beginning when we get to see the moment with the reporter backstage after a show the Allalies all put on. Everything else is pseudo-epistolary but not really because Molly and, usually, John, the private investigator, are reading something outloud to each other so it’s only a rather awkward info dump as opposed to a more seamless jump on the timeline. And they could have worked as flashbacks too. Just fine. But they weren’t used like that so instead of being immersed in the history it’s story time and you’re being read to. Kind of annoying.
Molly really isn’t a very well-developed character. Her interactions with people are forced and awkward. She doesn’t seem to have any social norms down regarding behavior. I don’t know if that’s a purposeful socially awkward/oblivious person or she’s just not written very well but she just doesn’t have the flow of a normal human being. She’s put in this story to serve a very specific purpose and it’s very obvious that’s the case. She is a chess piece being moved by the author throughout the story and Molly, as a character, isn’t allowed to just be. Because of this her interactions with everyone: her aunt, John, the Allalie family, are all cringe-worthy and contrived and don’t make for fluid reading at all. Her questions are too specific, too exact, too well-timed. Nothing was allowed to play out naturally.
Nowhere more than the end was that any more obvious as everyone converged on a single place, the villains, the good guys, the rest of the estranged family, and each layer of the onion was methodically peeled back to expose what the whole story’s been leading up to. It was too neat, too set up, and it left me feeling little to anything about the ending. And seriously, I think Molly ended up dating her cousin. That whole smear of family at the Allalie house was confusing but I’m almost positive her little love interest there is a distant cousin and she knows it. Goo.
What the author did do well was describe the magic, from the acts themselves to the ambiance around the people to a simple facet that wasn’t so simple after all. She nailed that. She made the Allalies seem ethereal and magical and maybe they existed and maybe they didn’t and the aura around them was just perfect. That’s where all of her focus seemed to be, was making those people seem as fantastical as they were supposed to. And it worked.
What also worked were the historical parts of the story. Even though they weren’t proper flashbacks the tone and the setting Goldstein meticulously set up was vibrant and far outshone anything happening in present day reading. The meetings and the people and the Labyrinth itself were all so much more realistic than anyone flopping around in the present day Bay area, pretending at being real people.
WALKING THE LABYRINTH ended up being a really disjointed story where certain aspects had all the effort while the rest of the story had none, or next to none. It made for an inconsistent read with characters I just didn’t care about as they questioned and conspired and pushed the story forward to its ultimate end. It’s not that Goldstein can’t write people or can’t write a cohesive plot, I just think she’s better at some people, and some scenarios, than others and it really showed here.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Most recent customer reviews
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