“. . . be very careful about the answers you chase right now. Do not drink of the intoxicating draft; dash it from your lips before you taste its true bitterness. Questions are dangerous, and their answers are more dangerous yet. But you won’t stop. Nor will I. Nor will your brother, I suspect, though he and I have never met. It’s in our natures to chase the secrets of the universe.”
Fans of low fantasy with mundane, yet endearing, characters will find much to love in H. G. Parry’s The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep. I’ll confess, I was very slightly dubious when I encountered this book’s premise. It felt a little cheesy to me. However, when I saw the names who were endorsing it, I couldn’t resist prodding Orbit for a review copy. Alix E. Harrow loved it? So did Matthew Ward? Okay, I was in. And I didn’t regret it one little bit. This book has the one thing I love most in my books: absolutely wonderful characters. The characters took a book that would have been merely good, and made it into something loveable and joyous. I felt that same spark of joy that I encountered when I read The Ten Thousand Doors for the first time.
Dr. Charles Sutherland, or Charley to his family, has a secret. He’s a an English professor who focuses on Victorian works, specifically the works of Dickens. He loves books, and connects with them in a way that most people never will – in fact, he connects with them a little too literally. When Charley becomes fully engrossed in a book, sometimes its characters come to life not only on the page, but in reality.
To his family, this has always been the norm. His mother has always wanted to protect him, helping him hide his ability and cleaning up after him when one of his characters manages to sneak its way out. Rob, the book’s narrator and main protagonist, performs a similar function. When Charley calls Rob in the middle of the night, Rob puts his day job as a lawyer on hold, makes an excuse to his wife, and goes to help Charley get Uriah Heep back into the pages of David Copperfield. This is just the way it has always been. Charley gets into trouble, and Rob comes in to save the day.
I think Charley had the door to the English department open before I could even knock. In the light spilling from the corridor behind him, I could see his eyes huge and appealing, his unruly mess of dark curls and baggy sweatshirt making him look smaller and younger than he was. He’s very good at that. It didn’t mean I wasn’t going to kill him this time—I was—but maybe not when he was completely beside himself with worry.
Things start to get messy, however, when they discover that Charley is not the only summoner calling characters out of their books. Soon, Charley and Rob are embroiled in the midst of a war that puts all of Wellington, and perhaps all of New Zealand as a whole, at risk.
“They’ll fear you here if they find out what you are, I’m afraid,” Millie said. “Summoners were only a legend to most of them. Lancelot knew of one, in the 1600s, but she was burned as a witch and all the characters she read out with her. Perhaps you and this other summoner are the first since she died hundreds of years ago. Everybody here comes from one-offs—random acts of reader connection. There are rumors of more, further back, when the written word was in its infancy. A lot of what was seen as magic in early history was probably really summoning: people reading dragons out of books, and the like.”
H. G. Parry takes us on a colorful, heartbreaking, and quirky romp as she introduces both “real” people and characters from books. Each individual is fully realized, and I loved the interplay between traits that were written in to characters from their authors and the character’s own, new desires now that they are in the real world. Rob’s wife, Lydia, quickly became a favorite of mine. It would have been simple for Parry to let her drift to the side without questioning Rob’s absences, but instead she became a questioning, inquisitive character determined to uncover just what this “family business” is.
Though I found quite a few of the twists fairly predictable, I was able to forgive that given the strength of the characters and the world. It was just fun watching them all interact, and the writing quality was stellar. It felt extremely polished, with the tone and structure working together to support the story. A few plot turns did manage to catch me by surprise, which was a joy in and of itself. All in all, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep comes of as incredibly genuine.