The Book of Love: A Novel by Kelly Link fantasy book reviewsThe Book of Love: A Novel by Kelly Link fantasy book reviewsThe Book of Love: A Novel by Kelly Link

The Book of Love (2024) is both a book only Kelly Link could have written and a book only Kelly Link could have written. What I mean by that is that the book has Link’s DNA all over it, all the elements and feel of a Kelly Link story, from statues coming to life and walking off their plinths to ancient temples rising alongside a sleepy seaside town to beautifully stunning transformations and transmutations. There are cats of course. And songs. This is also a book I’d say only Link (or someone else with her reputation and sales) could have written (or at least published), as most authors would probably have a received a pretty full log of “editorial notes”:

Does it need to be 600+ pages? Do we need chapter 11? Or 17? Or 18? What about this section here—we never see this person again; do we want to devote a whole POV chapter to them? This part here is lovely and lyrical, but I’m not sure it moves the plot along. Can we make Susanne more likable? Or Laura? Or Mo? I’m not clear how your magic is working; do you have any bullet point slides we could include explaining the rules? I’m not sure Book of Love is “genre” enough. Maybe Book of Dragons? Book of Shadows? The Book of Dragon Shadows? And does it need to be 600+ pages?

The answer to that last question by the way is no. And yes. But more on that later.

The book opens with a teenager, Susannah, still mourning the presumed death of her sister Laura, who disappeared a year ago with two other teens, Daniel and Mo. After a masterful evocation of grief, we shift to a classroom where the three dead teens have been “re-formed” by their high school music teacher Mr. Anabin after they slipped out of a purgatory-like forest, along with an enigmatic stranger who has no memory of who they are/were (they take the name “Bowie” thanks to a poster on the wall). Turns out Anabin is actually an ancient being who can work powerful magic, and not only has he recreated their bodies, has also magically altered memories so everyone now believes the three were off on a semester abroad in Ireland. Anabin and his somewhat scarier companion Bogomil have plans (albeit not necessarily the same ones) for the three resurrected teens that involve learning magic, a quest for a lost talisman, a cruel and uber-powerful goddess and her magical servant, an ancient desire for revenge, and guardianship of the doorway into death, though little of this is revealed early on. Oh, and there’s also the mysterious phrase/prophecy/threat: “Two return, two remain” to worry about.

All of this (and more) is conveyed via a series of third-person limited chapters presented as almost mini-novels: “The Book of Laura”, “The Book of Susannah”, etc. The novel contains over a dozen of these, the bulk focusing on the four teens, but Link also dips into the stories of the other main characters, as well as some of the townsfolk of Lovesend, Massachusetts, broadening our perspective on the whole story.

Based on the synopsis, the narrative path seems pretty clear: a typical magic doodad quest and the usual dead-people-solve-their-own-murder plot. But again, this is a Kelly Link book, so nobody should be expecting either “typical” or “usual.” In fact, while the talisman plays in integral role, Link seems relatively uninterested in either the quest for it or in any attempt to solve the teen’s mysterious death. Which means her characters are equally mostly uninterested in those things, though they make some desultory stabs at them. Mostly they focus on what teens focus on: sex, sibling rivalries, boyfriends and girlfriends, sex, parents, music, what their future holds, fear of embarrassment, and sex. Link has always been a master of economic characterization, working as she has exclusively in the short story form, but here she takes full advantage of all this narrative space, crafting a rich suite of characters who come fully, vividly alive and who always feel entirely real. Link doesn’t pull the usual authorial trick of sanding off the edges to make characters more palatable. Susannah for instance is prickly and rash while Laura can be insufferable in her certainty and their relationship is combustible and entirely plausible in how it shifts between toxicity and tenderness.

Theirs is only one of the love stories here. The on-again, off-again relationship between Susannah and Daniel is another. Meanwhile, Laura, in the beginning stages of coming out, has a crush on a classmate, and Daniel’s love for his siblings shines throughout. Mo has his love for music, a relationship he begins during this time, and most poignantly and tragically, the love he carries for his grandmother, the hugely successful romance novel writer Maryanne Gorch (penname Caitlyn Hightower) who passed away in the year he was himself dead. Maryanne raised Mo after his mother died young, and his grief at her death and the hold her absence leaves in his life is heartbreakingly portrayed. As is his sense of loneliness and isolation, a young, gay black man in a mostly white straight town.

In fact, the characterization is so immersive, their real-world problems so compelling for all their “mundanity” (no life is mundane is part of the book’s point I’d say), and the writing so often so damn good (the chapter depicting Maryanne’s death is the best thing I’ve read in months, worthy of its own prize as a separate short story), that to be honest, I found myself wondering multiple times, including upon finishing the novel, what this book would have been like had it been stripped of all its magic. Part of me says it would obviously be a loss, as some of the magical scenes are transfixingly beautiful. But another part of me thinks I’ve seen many of those scenes before, whether in Link’s own stories or elsewhere (one element reminded me quite a bit of Buffy). And it would also solve perhaps the only issue in the novel, its pace.

It’s not so much that the book is too long, though it did bog down for me for a patch in the middle where I was both surprised and dismayed by where I stood in the book (right around the halfway point). It’s more that the explanations of all the magical back story often rob the story of its narrative tension/energy. They also often feel clumsily inserted, and the way in which the required information is doled out feels more for the writer’s purpose than the characters’. In what may have been a bit of lampshading, several characters toward the end complain to other characters that “if you had just told me all this . . . “ At which points I could only nod my head in firm agreement. Finally, since I appear to be in the “carping” paragraph of this review, I’ll just add that for the most part, the supernatural characters are far less vivid and interesting than the real ones (if you can call resurrected dead “real”), and the big magical stakes at the end overwhelmed a bit what should have been a deeply, profoundly affecting event.

Even as I write this, I’m not sure which way I lean. I do know I would absolutely have happily read this book with all the magic left on the curb, and that Link turning in a first novel with no magic would be the most magically Kelly Link thing to do. But then, I also (mostly) quite happily read this book with all the magic in it and was sorry to close the last page (OK, click it). So there you go.

But if I’m betwixt and between on magic/no magic, I’m rock solid on the other aspects. The deft characterization and immersive rich characters. The honed, original, and at times breathtaking sentences. The digressive, allusive, and meta nature of the story – all stylistic choices I gravitate toward – with the metafictional aspects coming via Maryanne Gorch’s writing and also in the way that magic here often mirrors what writing does: changes how people think, resurrects the dead (although imperfectly), creates new life, new stories. And finally, appropriately for the title, I love all the different forms of love here, and how some are happy and some contentious and some tragic, and all are moving. And that in itself is its own type of magic. Highly recommended.

Published in February 2024. Late one night, Laura, Daniel, and Mo find themselves beneath the fluorescent lights of a high school classroom, almost a year after disappearing from their hometown, the small seaside community of Lovesend, Massachusetts, having long been presumed dead. Which, in fact, they are. With them in the room is their previously unremarkable high school music teacher, who seems to know something about their disappearance—and what has brought them back again. Desperate to reclaim their lives, the three agree to the terms of the bargain their music teacher proposes. They will be given a series of magical tasks; while they undertake them, they may return to their families and friends, but they can tell no one where they’ve been. In the end, there will be winners and there will be losers. But their resurrection has attracted the notice of other supernatural figures, all with their own agendas. As Laura, Daniel, and Mo grapple with the pieces of the lives they left behind, and Laura’s sister, Susannah, attempts to reconcile what she remembers with what she fears, these mysterious others begin to arrive, engulfing their community in danger and chaos, and it becomes imperative that the teens solve the mystery of their deaths to avert a looming disaster.


  • Bill Capossere

    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.