October 03, 2006
Epistolary novels are so hit-or-miss for me. It's not an easy format to do well—letters can seem contrived or antiquated, diary entries can be overworked and overdone, and e-mail or IM exchanges can quickly become tiresome and irritating. That being said, I love to see good examples of the form. They can be insightful, intriguing, and provide the fascination of sneaking a peek at someone else's mind. (One of my favorite examples is Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine books.)
The Riddles of Epsilon, by Christine Morton-Shaw, takes some chances with the epistolary form—ambitiously presenting a novel entirely in diary entries and IM conversations—but I'm not sure it was entirely successful. For one thing, this is a supernatural suspense novel. It's hard to build suspense and convey the incredulity of the supernatural experiences when limited to the writings (and typings) of a rather superficial and slightly annoying teenage girl. I also have trouble with diary entries in novels in general. Specifically, I often find them too narrative and too long to be believable as diary entries. How many people—even writers—can accurately reproduce entire conversations word for word? Why would one do this all the time? Who writes about their life, as it is happening, as though it is a story? I don't. Maybe I should. And who knows, maybe I'm the only one who doesn't. But I read books like Stephen King's The Stand, which is two inches thick of diary entries, and I just can't suspend my disbelief. (I know, I know; society as we know it came to an end and there wasn't much else to do but write, but STILL. Did this guy lug fifty notebooks around with him the whole time?)
Okay, I'm done with my little rant about diary entries. It's not like I don't use the occasional one in my own writing. And it's an admirable ambition to do a novel of this genre in epistolary from. In many respects this was successful in The Riddles of Epsilon. For one thing, there is a mysterious entity that appears to Jess only when she's in a chat room. Jess has moved with her parents to the small English island of Lume—she's a bit of a troublemaker, and her parents are dealing with issues of their own. An escape to an old house on a quiet island could be just the ticket.
But there's this strange presence called V (not for Vendetta) in the chat room, and as Jess explores the house and the surrounding island, she makes some interesting discoveries about those who used to live there and about the mythology of the island—which might be a little more real than your average myths. In fact, even her parents start to act a little strangely. She finds clues in a mysterious language, and is guided gently by V, who seems to want to help her unravel all these riddles. It's fun to watch Jess puzzle out the creepy clues in the form of poems, songs, and diary entries from some long-ago boy named Sebastian whose experiences seem to have an uncanny resemblance to hers…
I really liked the whole mythology of the island—it has its own strange traditions tied to ancient legends of the past, and these have been nicely done. There are enough scary elements to give a sense of real danger. I wasn't entirely convinced by the role of V—aka Epsilon—if he could pinpoint her to the location of things and tease her along with clues, telling her where to find them and when she was on the wrong track, I didn't see why he didn't just tell her things outright instead of just watching her puzzle out the clues, if things were so dire.
So I did have a few moments where I couldn't suspend my disbelief, but I think a lot of people might enjoy this book. It's a fun, fast read when you get past the quirky form, and there are some truly creepy, suspenseful scenes and some very inventive mythological elements.