Novella Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor.com (January 10, 2017)
Length: 183 pages
This book isn’t your typical ghost story. While it includes a significant number of urban fantasy elements, there is also a darkly profound, rather despairing thread running beneath its surface. Thematically it is also on the weightier side, dealing with topics like suicide, survivor guilt, and emotional trauma. Fans of Seanan McGuire are still going to love her engaging storytelling style and loveable characters, but if you’re used to more offbeat and quirkier UF, I think this one may leave you with a heavier heart.
The story begins with the funeral of Jenna’s older sister Patty, who left for New York City with big dreams but ended up taking her own life instead. Grieving with the loss and blaming herself, a stricken Jenna runs off into the night during a bad rainstorm and tragically slips into the river, drowning in the raging current.
Because Jenna’s death was an accident, however, she died too soon according to a ledger of cosmic checks and balances which states a person’s soul cannot pass on until they have served their full time on the mortal plane. When Jenna died, she found quite a hefty debt still on her record, so like everyone else before her who died before their time, she became a ghost and must remain among the living until that balance is repaid.
Fast forward forty years, and Jenna is living in New York City leeching off a little bit of her debt each day on living strangers, with every minute she gives being another minute added to their youth. However, because Jenna sees “time left” as a form of currency, her gift of life in fact becomes an act of theft in her eyes. In order to earn back what she has stolen, Jenna also volunteers at a suicide prevent hotline trying to save others from Patty’s fate, hoping that when her time finally does come she will rejoin her beloved sister with a clean balance and conscience.
This is probably my third or fourth foray into McGuire’s work, and while overall I have enjoyed her books, I confess thus far I’m still waiting for “the one” which would blow me away. I started Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day with the hopes that this would be it, but ultimately there was just something about it that didn’t quite click for me. Like I said, this is a story with some heavy, tragic themes to it, so it might simply be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. Admittedly, the whole thing left me feeling kind of worn and heartsick by the end of it, even though I was hooked by the intro with its fascinating look into this world of ghosts and their concept of “time owed”.
Looking at this from another angle though, it clearly speaks well of the author that she can so successfully convey emotional impact with her writing and portrayal of her characters. My personal reaction to this novella aside, I can recognize a good story when I see one, and this has all the elements of an engaging tale full of imagination and feeling. Jenna is a narrator with a unique perspective, yet the care and attention to detail paid to her backstory makes it easy to sympathize with her decisions when all around her are other ghosts that do not share her same views or values. She’s a genuinely good character who not only extends her kindness to people in need as evidenced by her goal to rescue as many aging cats from shelters as possible, giving them love and a comfortable place to live out their final days. Death is a theme that infuses every page, but sometimes its oppressive presence is lightened with compassion and scenes like that.
The ideas in this book are also mind-bogglingly original. It took me some time to wrap my head around ghosts and their ability to give and take time, but I eventually came to appreciate the ingenuity behind the concept. As well, McGuire paints an interesting picture for her ghosts’ existence, linking them to special relationships with mirrors and witches. For a novella, the world-building is surprisingly robust.
Ultimately, I feel the ending could have been handled better, but since I can’t elaborate without giving away details, I’ll just say that it didn’t come across as eloquent or consistent as the rest of the story. That said, there is no shortage of feeling, and at the end of the day I think the conclusion manages to achieve its desired impact. If this book sounds like something that might interest you, I highly recommend giving it a try.