Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: September 10th
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Ocean Setting, Published in 2019 (HM)
“Here are the two things you absolutely need to know. First: In case you didn’t know, you’re an idea. I’m not sure if you’re an imaginary friend or a novel’s protagonist or a mascot or what. But if you’re here, you’re an idea.
Second: You were loved. You were loved enduringly and unequivocally, and that made you capital-R Real. Not an idea; an Idea. A Friend.
But then – whatever just happened to your person, your creator – it happened, and it was horrible, and it affected you. I won’t pretend to know what, and I won’t ask, but whatever it was, your person couldn’t keep you around. For most ideas, that’s it, lights out. But now you. You’re Real. So… what happens to you?“
Welcome to the next stop on The Imaginary Corpse blog tour, run by the lovely folks over at Angry Robot! Up this evening on my blog will be an article focusing on mental health issues in science fiction and fantasy. For more information on this blog tour, please see below.
Now… for what you all came here for. A book review! The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes is hands-down the most imaginative, fresh, and kind book I’ve read this year. It is absolutely unlike anything else I’ve read, combining the innocence and creativity of a middle grade novel with the darkness and trauma of adult fantasy. At a glance, that makes it tempting to label this book as YA or middle grade, but upon reading it, that’s clearly not the case. It deals with loss of innocence, growing up, trauma, PTSD, identity, and abuse in a way that is both genuinely kind and genuinely heartbreaking.
Detective Tippy, a stuffed triceratops and owner of the Stuffed Animal Detective Agency, is our main character. He’s the former imaginary friend of a young girl, Sandra, and most of his personality came from her. However, much like all of the other Friends in the Stillreal, Tippy’s person underwent a trauma that forced her to give up Tippy. She did not merely grow up. She did not just stop believing. Instead, she saw her father die in front of her, and Tippy became too painful for her to keep him around any more.
“The first thing I remember is the spinning; after that comes the squealing and the screaming. I remember Daddy giving us order, but I don’t remember his words. I remember the awful, high-pitched punching sound of glass giving way. I remember Sandra’s legs, hurting and not hurting at the same time, and this heavy feeling like she couldn’t quite move. I remember the crimson color of Daddy’s face, and the weird way he hunched over the steering wheel, and how everything smelled like thawing steak and Daddy’s cologne.”
Tippy is exactly what you’d expect from a young girl who’s set and determined to figure out the “Co-Spirity” that’s plaguing her home. When her dad seems to come home late or not at all, when her mom gets angry whenever her dad smells like a certain perfume… Sandra just wants to know why in the innocent way only a little girl can. She and Tippy work together to find clues, and Tippy wants nothing more than to help and protect Sandra. When Sandra realizes that maybe it’s better to stop looking into the why of this particular mystery, Tippy is disappointed… but also understands that Sandra’s happiness comes first. This intense desire both to help and to solve mysteries are the foundation of who Tippy is in the Stillreal, too.
When Tippy is punted away from Sandra and into the Stillreal, he finds a new home and a new family. The cast of The Imaginary Corpse is made up of characters who are much like Tippy, in that they have the goals and dreams of children behind them as well as the trauma that both inspired their creation and their subsequent destruction. Officers Hot and Cold, a child’s dream of justice. Miss Mighty, the nemesis of Doctor Atrocity. Breaker, an octopus in charge of making sure the Memory Whales who help organize Sasha’s mind stay healthy and organized. In the Stillreal, there is no permanent death – even if Doctor Atrocity gets the best of Miss Mighty, the idea of Miss Mighty carries on and reforms again in time.
“Friends can’t die. We can be already dead, like Lloyd and Rocky, the vampire couple in the Terrible Old House. We can even be dead for a while, like King Max Courage of Pluto after he fought the Steel Serpents. But we don’t stay dead. Even in the Ideas where murder does exist, it happens according to set parameters, and it’s never really permanent. Yes, it’s violent, but one is really hurt in the end. Trust me, we’ve asked the victims.
However, that assumption about death and its impermanence is challenged with a new Friend arrives in the Stillreal. The book opens with Tippy on the case to investigate some screaming corn over at Farmer Nick Nefarious’ Nightshire Farms. While his idea is in fact a Nightmare, the screams are rather a bit… much. When Tippy arrives, he finds the issue quickly: a young Nightmare appears to be hiding out in the barn. Spindleman tells Tippy the outline of his story, that a Man in a Coat came after his Person. Tippy, however, disregards this for the moment; it’s starting to sprinkle, and rain brings back the memories and emotions he experienced when Sandra’s father died.
Tippy finds reason to regret this when The Man in the Coat reappears and kills Spindleman… permanently. Spindleman doesn’t come back. He’s simply gone, which has never happened before in the Stillreal. Naturally, everyone is on edge – and more deaths will follow before The Man in the Coat is stopped.
As they hunt The Man in the Coat, Tippy is the lynchpin who helps those in his community to find reserves of bravery they never knew they had even in the face of overwhelming pain and fear. These are all deeply, irreparably flawed and hurt characters who come together to help one another when they need it. This is a book about friendship, about support, and about how even people who have been hurt can help one another cope and find happiness – even if the source of their pain will never go away. Sometimes, they hurt each other, and sometimes, they find it in them to forgive and improve themselves.
“’I yelled at you because I was hurting, but I was mad at you because you didn’t trust me. You thought I would say no to danger, and not only is that a total misunderstanding of who I am, that is not a decision you get to take from somebody.’ Her teeth clench. ‘Ever.’”
There are themes of identity, given that ideas may be too young to have a gender or even a fully formed body. No one can really make assumptions about one another, given that they’re not even close to limited to a human form, and many may have been the Friend of a child who was still figuring out their own gender or other aspects of their identity.
“’Hi,’ I say, with ashes in my mouth. ‘I’m Detective Tippy. What’s your name and pronoun?’
Frieda clear her throat. ‘Her name is – ‘
‘I asked them,’ I say, barely taking my eyes off Wrrbrr.
Frieda’s mouth goes quiet, but her eyes glow red.
The blobby little Friend looks at Frieda, at me, face scrunched up as they try to make the hardest decision. When they speak, it’s in a breathy little whisper, like air escaping from a party balloon.
‘I’m Wrrbrr,’ they say, a little roll to the ‘r’s that Frieda didn’t quite nail. ‘And… and..’ They scrunch up their face again. ‘What’s a pronoun, please?’”
Sometimes everyone needs a Tippy in their life to show a little kindness during hard times. This book doesn’t end with everyone happy and safe, but it does end with everyone doing their best to care for one another despite that… and I think that’s the most important thing.
“We make sense of a world that sometimes refuses to make sense. We remind everyone that the world is basically a good place, even – especially – when it seems to be anything but. We help people.
I like solving mysteries. I like gathering clues. I like feeling a puzzle come together in my mind. But those are tools, a means to an end. What I really do is help people, both with their problems and with believing the best of the world. That’s what Sandra wanted me for. That’s what… that’s really what got me stuck here in the first place. But as long as I do that – as long as I help – I know everything will, eventually, work out alright. Even if getting there hurts.”
Recommended for fans of:
- The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
- To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Drop me a line in the comments below!