Last Exit: Complex, compelling, and intense

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

Last Exit by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsLast Exit by Max Gladstone

Last Exit by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsHere is Max Gladstone’s recipe for a Last Exit (2022) cocktail:

  • One part fervent, confident intensity of young adulthood
  • One part fever dream (or nightmare) of magic and alternate worlds
  • Add bitters in the form of mid-life fears, regrets, and resignations born out of both trauma and simple aging
  • Splash of Mad Max
  • Zest of Zelazny
  • Stir with a rusty spoon of entropy
  • Pour slowly into a clear (eyed) glass filled one-quarter with the crushed ice-dreams of Americana myth and rimmed with sugar for a little bit of innocent sweetness
  • Serve with a shot of hope (the kind that burns on the way down)(And don’t forget to tip your bartender — you’re going to be a regular)

Gladstone’s newest is a darkly compelling and intense work, following a group of friends who met at college, where they learned to manipulate a math-y kind of magic of uncertainty that lets them slip into alternate realities (“the alts”) — “Broken worlds. One after another. Beautiful, some of them, but sick. Burned down to the bone … we never found anything better.” Instead, they encountered “the rot,” something “beyond the walls of our world … old and hungry and always looking for a way in … We thought maybe the rot was what was wrong, with our world, with all of them.” And so, with the optimism, confidence, and/or desperation of youth, they tried to go “further [to] a crossroads … A place where worlds meet. We thought if we got there, we would have the power to change everything. Fix the world.” But they failed to reach the Crossroads and in the attempt lost Sal, the love of Zelda’s life.

That happened a decade ago and since then they’ve all moved on, losing contact with one another, dealing with their trauma in different ways, and employing their personal “knack” (a kind of very narrow and individualized magic they picked up from their travels) to ease their way into a “normal life.” All save for Zelda, the novel’s main protagonist, who has been spending the past ten years doing what she can to seal the cracks, heal the wounds, push the rot back. But now it threatens to overwhelm the world and so she gets the gang back together for one more attempt at the Crossroads, along with Sal’s young and still idealistic cousin June. But after ten years, they’re not the same people they once were, and things in the alts seem to have gotten even worse. Not to mention the deadly cowboy that is pursuing them, an agent of the rot perhaps, or maybe something worse.

Gladstone relates the narrative via two timelines. In one we watch the group of friends form, learn how to travel, traverse the alts, and eventually we learn what happened that day they tried to reach the Crossroads, lost Sal, and stopped interacting with each other. The other tracks Zelda and then the group in present time as they reform, reenter the alts, and make yet another run at getting to the Crossroads, pursued, as noted, by some malevolent force in the form of a cowboy. The shifts between timelines are always smoothly handled, and the structure does an excellent job of increasing the tension and suspense. We know, for instance, that the first timeline ends in tragedy so there’s this awful/wonderful sense of dread as we move forward. Meanwhile, the present timeline has a sense of urgency thanks to the approaching apocalypse, and added elements of tension that come both from within (prickly interrelationships) and without (the cowboy). All of this set against a backdrop of truly creepy, horrific worlds whose denizens range from voracious mechanical spiders to a Mad Max central-casting biker crew. On a simple plot level, Last Exit is an excellent work of fiction, one made all the more so by the sharply vivid characterization that makes each member of the gang feel fully alive and uniquely themselves, uniquely the result of their experiences despite that some of those experiences were shared ones. Not all were or could be, and that makes all the difference.

But there’s a lot more going on here than a well-plotted and -peopled novel. Gladstone is also dissecting the American mythos via a number of well-trod symbols: the cowboy, the car/road trip, the action film. At various points he rips aside the veil to reveal the ugly reality below, noting how “In America, you never could walk without stepping on corpses,” or that “what will you find when you peel back this nation’s skin but blood, oceans of blood.” Meanwhile, June, on multiple occasions, points out what she calls “some wrongheaded, individualist horseshit,” the bs behind “thinking this is some kind of action movie, like one dude crawling around in the air ducts gonna save the day.” Gladstone gets overt about this sort of American mythologizing as well, as when Zelda wonders:

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone

If you remembered something hard enough, could you make it true? … Hell, this was America after all. Revisionist history was as much the national pastime as baseball. Rapist slaveholders became civic saints. Men who fought to keep people enslaved, who insisted slavery was the point of the war, lived to see their own children and grandchildren proclaim slaves had nothing to do with it.

It’s not just the collective national myth under the scope, though, as Gladstone also casts a sharp eye on our individual means of hiding from the truth, the way “So much of being a certain kind of American — blithe and faithful, cheerily persuaded of your ultimate justice — depended on a cognitively expensive kind of unseeing. Ignoring the evidence of your senses. Believe the world otherwise.” Or, to give it both a metaphorical and, this being fantasy, perhaps not-so-metaphorical cast:

A serpent gnaws at the roots of the word … It knows we’re up here, drinking coffee and wondering whether it’s okay to turn the AC down one more degree — sure, it’s speeding up the death of the plant, but it’s hot now … It knows we do not feel the weight of the world pressing on our backs. It knows. And, and it’s pissed … You know this. I know this. But we forget, most of the time. You have to forget, to live anything like a human life. You make yourself forget.

Last Exit is a book about politics. It’s a book about the idealism of youth, when you think “That if we worked hard and trusted each other and believed, we might find or make a world that wasn’t so … this way.” It’s a book about aging and how you end up looking like how “the cartilage started to wear out … [and] if the world just did that to you, seeped out what you’d been and left holes behind.”

It’s a book about climate change. And social justice. About class. About how “Ramón, a first-generation college student, and brown, Zelda from a family of bookish zealot weirdos up a gravel road in South Carolina, neither of them with any money … [found] there were things they didn’t know, things the kids who came from prep schools … seemed to have learned without being taught … For example, if you didn’t know what to write for a paper, you could just go ask the teacher … or you could ask for an extension.” It’s a book about taking responsibility for your own little part of the world no matter how overwhelming it all seems, because “There’s always a tank rolling down some street. You can’t do everything — but that doesn’t forgive you for not doing what you can.”

It’s a book about trauma and loneliness and otherness and marginalization and fear and desire and finding out who you are and then finding out who you become and it’s about finding people who will see you through all that and share all that and it’s about losing them or some of them and maybe even finding some of them again. It’s about feeling “despair. Who wouldn’t if they were paying attention? But you didn’t feel it all the time. You walled it up with a purpose. With friendship. With vows and work. And you reminded yourself that it was not just you who felt this way.”

It’s an intense pedal-to-the-metal roadtrip action novel through hells both exterior and interior; a quietly contemplative, introspective, philosophical, tale; a love story; a coming-of-age story, a biting work of political and social criticism. One might even say Last Exit contains multitudes.

And all of them good.Last Exit Max Gladstone

~Bill Capossere


Last Exit by Max Gladstone science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI agree with everything in Bill’s excellent review of Max Gladstone’s brilliant book Last Exit. I’m going to tug on just one thread in the review and the book, because I want to talk about the figure who pursues our group of tarnished heroes as they try and try to make things right — the Cowboy.

The mythologizing of the United States of America, as Bill points out, is a main theme in this book, which is what the character June is giving a critique of with comments like “individualistic horseshit.” The Cowboy is one embodiment of the myth, even when about 66% of what we think of when we think “cowboy” is wrong. Historically, more than half of the actual cowboys were Black men or men of color. Cowboys worked in groups, for ranchers. The lone male figure on the horse, silhouetted against the blue sky, is the myth, but it’s the one we’ve absorbed, and it’s that figure Gladstone uses in his book. In case we missed his point, he tells us more than once that this figure wears a white hat—the symbol of the “good guy.”

It’s difficult to read Last Exit without thinking of Stephen King. On social media, Gladstone himself has said he sees parallels with It, notably the group of innocents who tried and failed to conquer evil and come back as damaged adults to try again. For me, the Cowboy brought me straight to Roland in King’s DARK TOWER cycle, specifically the Roland we meet in The Gunslinger, the first book of the series. While in later books in the cycle the character of Roland becomes approachable, in The Gunslinger, which is a collection of novellas, Roland is much more of an elemental force. And that force is destructive. King imagines a world—Gladstone might call it an “alt”—of desolation and decay. To stop the spread of evil, for instance, Roland kills everyone in a small desert town. Later, Roland meets a boy named Jake, his chance at a humanizing influence, but ultimately sacrifices Jake in pursuit of his quest for vengeance. In King’s book (originally published in 1982) Jake himself is quick to exonerate Roland with the line that becomes a refrain, “There are other worlds than these,” and the longer story also forgives Roland by returning Jake to him in later books.

Roland is a person who will betray all his own humanity in service to what he believes is “the right thing.” Gladstone’s Cowboy would applaud Roland’s commitment. The Cowboy is about destruction—ripping away life to bring order. His white hat glows phosphorescent white, like the bio-luminescence of something decaying. The brim of his hat curls like horns. For our five main characters, he is the unavoidable avatar of the poisonous American Dream. And it seems, since he starts following them as soon as they begin to reconnect, that he is their mythic figure— the symbol of much (if not all) of what is wrong with America. As well as being creepy as hell, it is intentional when the Cowboy starts using “daddy,” as a nickname for one of our champions. It’s not just a figure of speech. Our heroes see that they have helped birth or at least nurture the evil in the world. The Cowboy is part of them.

Last Exit exists in dialogue with The Gunslinger. Gladstone hits just the right note with this avatar, an entity terrifying, seductive, and so frighteningly convincing. He is impossible to escape. In THE DARK TOWER, Roland ultimately leaves behind hope, compassion, and love to pursue an endless quest. This is basically what the Cowboy offers the five in Last Exit — to put aside hope and healing. For a large part of the book, it looks like he might be right.

Much of the suspense of this story came simply from the struggle each character has in figuring out, maybe not what’s “right,” but what’s best—and us trying to figure out if there was a way our damaged main characters would finally come together. At every turn, the Cowboy is here to stop them. I think about this book often since I’ve read it… but the Cowboy haunts me.

~Marion Deeds

Published in February 2022. Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth—the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy—into Last Exit, a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive. Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group’s heart. Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart. Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US. When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts. Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before. As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before. But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone’s hearts.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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10 comments

  1. Wow, sounds like a must-read. Some of your description reminds me of The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

  2. Katharine Ott /

    I love the cocktail recipe analogy! I may consider this for my next book club choice – I need to interest four 30-somethings and two 60-somethings, so it’s not always easy to find the right fit!

    • the 30-somethings will definitely relate, and I would think the 60-somethings will understand that sense of life not going the way you thought it would when you were young. It can be creepy, tense, and there’s some violence in it if that matters to your book club

  3. I am looking forward to reading this! And this is another brilliantly-written review.

  4. Paul Connelly /

    I think this is like the seventh book from the last few years that’s been widely praised by people of good taste but that I ended up having to DNF. And the fourth Max Gladstone book in a row that has disappointed me, after he became an automatic must-read for me based on the first five Craft novels. His characters have just become too cartoonish for me–my notes on this one ask, “How many brilliant, marginalized, emotionally angsty but hypercompetent characters can you shoehorn into one narrative?” Plus relating fantasy situations to real social ills requires extreme care if you’re going to navigate the suspension of disbelief through to the end. That’s one reason why I drifted away from reading de Lint after a while. Violence against women (like what Isabelle suffers in Memory and Dream) is not caused by demons and magic will not save you from it. And nothing like interdimensional “rot” has any bearing on racism, homophobia and environmental exploitation, and no supergenius adolescent is altering the reality underlying those evils.

    • You’re not wrong, but for me the book addresses hope and cynicism. Hope CAN be affected by fiction or fantasy.

      • Paul Connelly /

        Yes, and I find hope much preferable to existential despair or what one might term the radical acceptance of Buddhism or quietism. But, as a stance or attitude taken toward the future, it comes with an expiration date. When one’s hopes don’t come to fulfillment at some point, one either has to readjust the dates, like the Millerites or previous sects in primitive Christianity, or redefine the goals. As Max has progressed through his thirties, the motif has appeared in his books (this one and the last two Craft novels) of former wunderkinder who failed to make the great change happen coming back at it for round 2 a decade or so later in life. No surprise. Then at some point we renew the ticket on behalf of our offspring or some other future generation rather than ourselves. But if it’s too closely tied to ideals and cult beliefs of our youth, these hopes don’t age well or maintain their appeal for those on whose behalf we have renewed them, which is why a lot of earnest (as opposed to satiric) utopias go quickly to the mustiest corner of the library stacks. A round 2 drama can work, like the second try at the Reconciliation in Clive Barker’s Imajica, but it’s pure fantasy and hard to even find anything allegorical in.

        And it’s hard to imagine how the future can realize our hopes when our understanding is based on a flawed or incomplete analysis of the present. On one level, anything which helps get us to the next day has value, and that’s maybe what novels like de Lint’s helped do in their era. But for our broader social ills, rather than building the type of mass movement that seeks a better life for everyone, we fell into Gregory Bateson’s schismogenesis and devolved into two sides that define themselves in their extreme opposition to one another, each with its hierarchies of the righteous and the damned. Even if one wins, few people are likely to be happy with the new reality that results. Of course, fiction can zoom too far out and take the approach that our only hope is changing the human genome or some other aspect of human physiology, as in The Paradox Men by Charles Harness or Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman, but who would you trust to actually do that, if the capability existed? Not any of our current tech billionaires, please! I think authors like Tolkien and Le Guin succeed by finding hope in the limited outcomes of their characters’ lives in worlds that allude to aspects of ours without overly identifying them with ideological ramparts being contested in the writer’s day.

  5. Paul, I think you are the only person I know who can use schismogenesis correctly in a sentence!

    An interesting thread in your comment about “renewing our ticket on behalf of our offspring.” As a relatively new dad, Gladstone may be wresting with that himself.

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