They are the young misfits…society’s castoffs…urban strays looking for a thrill. Something cheap, anything to get them through the night. Sleepwalking on caffeine, nicotine, and drugs, they wait out the dawn in death-rock clubs and shadowy back alleys…
Then into their midst comes the enigmatic Spyder. A patron saint of the alienated and lost, she invites them into her mesmerizing world-but has she been sent to redeem them or destroy them?
As the title indicates, this book reads very much like a story arc from The Dreaming, which should be of little surprise: that Sandman spin-off was, after all, taken over and solely directed by Kiernan after the first few issues. Not a bad thing. Outside of some questionable narrative choices, the gang-rape of Nuala (ugh, yes, I know), and racefail… well, that’s a significant but, but taken altogether I liked The Dreaming okay, more or less. Certainly it’s an improvement upon Gaiman in most respects.
Unfortunately, because it reads like something that’d fill up maybe a couple issues of The Dreaming it means that Silk goes on for far, far too long. Slim at 368 pages, it defied my expectation of being a quick read and turned into one of those books I wished would end at page 200-something. There are too many characters, and the horror plot alternates between faintly interesting and tediously uncompelling. And there’s racefail too, naturally.
You’ll be surprised to know that I will still recommend Kiernan and am willing to give her another try. Not that you’d be able to tell that from the meat of this review.
The first thing that turned me off this book is that it’s about a bunch of angsty teenagers. Or possibly a bunch of angsty early twenties, but the difference between “teenage” and that seems slim in this book; certainly everyone behaves more or less like teenagers. On one hand there are good reasons some of them are the way they are, but on the other there’s no good reason why most of them are so fucking self-absorbed and so angsty their wrists constantly try to slash themselves. Robin is a poor little rich girl, Keith is a poor little rich boy, who is Walter again, I have no idea what is Byron’s deal and I haven’t the faintest what the matter with Daria is. Some of them are goths and I’ve never understood what the hell is with goths. Some of them are in a band. What is it with a certain kind of teenagers and bands, and why should I give a single tiny little fuck?
It’s, in short, really bloody difficult to give a shit about more than half the cast and impossible to sympathize with them in any way whatsoever. Probably it will appeal to goth teenagers and teenagers into death rock (or whatever insipid godawful thing it is that Daria’s band plays), and adults who used to be such. Structurally it is fairly terrible, as well, with the first half spent on setting up and developing the too-large cast of characters who barring a handful are eminently forgettable, defined solely by basic traits like “fucked-up junkie” or “she’s in a band.” When the plot does finally happen, there’s only half a book left, and it’s not a plot that especially engages or intrigues. It’s a snippet out of Silent Hill, but without the surrounding narrative or a mythos built up over three games. It goes about where you think it will and leaves you with the same feeling you went in with: one of detached disinterest.
Essentially, and I hate to sound shallow, this book’s sole redeeming point is the queer girls. It is quite the redeeming point, verily the saving grace, though.
And through her weariness, Niki was amazed that she felt this comfortable so close to Spyder, someone she’d never even seen just a few hours earlier. More than an absence of discomfort, the pit-of-her-stomach homesickness all but faded away, the dread gone with it, mostly.
And then Niki turned and looked at Spyder’s eyes, eyes like marble the faintest shade of blue, palest steel, that divine wound between them, and Spyder gave her another long animal blink. And then Niki kissed her.
Spyder had sat down beside the bulbous lower tier of the snowman, had pulled out his stick-dick and was busy using it to trace swirling lines in the snow crust. Niki joined her, sat as close as she dared, remembering the awkward kiss the night before, still just as confused, still just as attracted.
Awwwwwwww. Awwwww. It probably has to be said that, at the beginning, two of the four girls are queer and the other two are straight. But about halfway through Niki realizes she’s not quite straight, Daria is showing hints of attraction to Niki, and by the sequel they are a couple. It’s so nice. It’s such a breath of HOORAY FUCK YEAH like you wouldn’t believe. There are queer boys in there too, but they aren’t central to the plot.
What little plot does exist trudges along this line: Robin, Spyder’s girlfriend, for some reason enacts a ritual while tripping on shrooms and this somehow releases Spyder’s demons. Which come from Spyder’s trauma dating from her childhood abuse and, yes, being raped by her father. I wish it was about something else. I really, really wish it was about something else (hello Nuala). Nor can I speak on Kiernan’s handling of PTSD and various disorders, since I know about zilch regarding them, though I’ll note that many of Kiernan’s protagonists are afflicted with similar conditions. The protagonist of The Red Tree isn’t entirely together either (and is also queer, oh yes–but The Red Tree, again, failed to compel me as a book because it too is horror and I’m not really into horror). The characters start to hallucinate, except it’s maybe real, and then things happen and people die.
I really wish it was about something else or that there was more to be said for, or about, the plot.
Kiernan does have a way with words, however, which shows even in this, her debut novel: “sat pinned beneath fluorescence glaring like noon sunshine on a hangover”, “a soft sound in her sleep, like something a word might leave behind”, or–
Irony like an evil joke she was playing on herself, that she d run from Danny partly because she hadn t been able to imagine herself with a woman, knee-jerk repulsion. Other reasons, but that one so damning huge. And now Spyder, vicious edification, the fairy-tale punch line too brutal not to be real.
But at the same time, there are some embarrassing passages:
Headful of ashes and simmering hate for no one but himself, plenty of room left for regret, and he didn t know the name of this street, didn’t know where that alley led, and that was good, that was how it felt inside, exactly. Anonymous brick and cinder block like his soul and the expression on Daria’s face when he d smashed his guitar.
Oh, and the racefail.
Several of the characters are actually of color and here and there Kiernan attempts to engage with that, like people asking Niki–Vietnamese–if she’s Japanese or Chinese, but at the same time many of the descriptions are full of unfortunate implications. The word “exotic” comes up a lot.
#1 There had been letters, exotic stamps and picture postcards from halfway around the world, messages from faceless relatives written in the mysterious, beautiful alphabet that she had never learned to read.
#2 Caught there in the last glory of the day, Niki’s skin seemed to radiate its own light, perfect silken complexion, balanced somewhere lustrous between almond and ginger. Daria knew her own skin was as unremarkable as her face, not pale enough for goth, despite her vampire s hours, but certainly no color to speak of. A few poorly placed freckles scattered beneath her eyes, and she still got zits on the days before her periods. Niki was wearing a ratty Cure T-shirt she d pulled out of her bubblegum-colored gym bag, frayed sleeves cut off at the shoulders and the collar stretched shapeless, and she still looked exotic.
In case you didn’t know? East Asian girls: totally exotic. East Asian languages? Mysterious and exotic. Daria just can’t stop noticing how graceful Niki is, either, in a way that edges toward borderline yellow fever. Niki also has, at one point, “a soft smile on her Asian lips.” What do Asian lips even look like? Exotic and mysterious, I suppose.
#1 more like someone had said, Spyder, honey, you couldn’t find your way around Atlanta with a road map, a compass, and an Indian guide, and Niki began to wonder just how bad an idea this had been.
#2 Spaces between streetlamp pools and the eyes that watched him suspiciously from black faces, the sound of his boots on concrete cold and hard as the cast of her mouth.
Nor is Kiernan what you’d call nice to large people (all the main characters are, of course, stick-thin: Spyder actually has a “washboard-flat stomach”):
#1 But her Aunt Margaret had rented out the house, her house, and the fat woman who’d answered the door hadn’t even let Spyder come inside, had stood behind the latched screen, nervous, piggy eyes and children screaming over the television behind her.
#2 A fat girl with so much eyeliner she’d looked like a gluttonous raccoon had sneered at him, and then they’d all started talking again.
So are they supposed to be pigs or raccoons? Make up your mind, man; if you are going to be body-shaming at least stay consistent. Oh, well, as long as we keep in mind that fat people are like animals.
I did want to like the book. I didn’t expect it to be perfect about every single SJ issue under the sky, but you can appreciate that it’s tricky for me to write off the “Asians: so exotic!” schtick as trivial. Just as difficult to get past is the flat plot, the unscary horror aspects, the uncompelling characters–of the cast I was only interested in Niki, Spyder and Robin. But I would like to give Kiernan another try, because whatever she writes I can be certain that it’ll be full of queer women, and that is nice. Any recommendations?