(second in THE RIFTER series, based on a review copy)
This is one of those books that had me eager with anticipation before I even started reading. Hale has become one of my favorite authors and, while surprises are great as well, it’s always a wonderful feeling starting a book with the certainty that you’ll love it.
Hale includes a useful summary at the beginning each section for those who need refreshing. Though it’s been a while, I found the characters and story memorable enough that I didn’t really need the paragraph-long reminders, but I appreciated them nonetheless.
For as much as the first half of the book, the story feels significantly slower than in THE SHATTERED GATES. While “slow” tends to have a negative connotation when describing a book, I certainly don’t mean it as a criticism here. Hale’s a gifted writer who makes her characters feel real and then makes me desperately care for them. The end result is that I care about everything, even smaller moments in their lives. I recall a point when I was reading THE SHATTERED GATES, a scene in which John, Laurie, and Bill are eating a meal, and suddenly I looked up from the book and thought, “How on earth am I this invested in a scene with characters sitting around eating and chatting?” The answer: because I care so much about these people. Not to imply that everything early in THE HOLY ROAD is as simplistic as mealtime, but John’s weariness feels almost tangible. He’s been in this other world for years, searching for a way home for years. In any battle, whether for your life, your love, your dream, etc. the results often come down to how hard you’re willing to work - whether you will do literally anything or whether you reach a point when you decide whatever you’re fighting for isn’t worth this much effort. John has immersed himself in a new life, an entire identity that feels like a fraud, all in effort of one day finding a way back to his world. At least for me, the fear that John’s reservoir of determination might finally be running dry and that he would ultimately give up his effort to return home propelled the first part of the book.
As in THE SHATTERED GATES, there’s a big switch halfway through the novel - to a different time and a slightly different cast. The pace jerks into high speed a little before that, with a devastating conclusion to the first part of the book, and then the tension stays taunt throughout the second part.
The magic confused me a little in the second part of the book. However, I’ve found Hale to be one of those authors who will reward my loyalty if I simply have faith. Every piece fits together at the right moment and I need to trust that she will show me the whole picture if only I make peace with only seeing jumbled snippets at the moment. I did eventually work through the element that confused me, though I still find it a bit of a mind bender. (Especially since Hale understates things rather than repeatedly explaining them with excruciating - and sometimes insulting - explicitness. I prefer subtly, but it can make the reader doubt their interpretations.) Nevertheless, I admire the unique magic system and how thoroughly she’s considered the implications. Once you grasp what’s going on, it raises so many interesting questions. Complicated, but worth it.
The book builds to an intense, high stakes climax and a brutally enthralling ending. I never predicated what slams into the characters and the reader from around the corner and the intensity with which I felt everything took me by surprise. Hale’s also one of the few authors who can write cliffhanger endings that don’t bug me. You can click here to read my full discussion post about my feelings on cliffhangers, but in short what usually distinguishes my love or hate reaction is how much information is being withheld. Hale’s cliffhangers tend to be more of the emotional variety. We know exactly what happened, but not what comes next yet or how the characters will cope. It’s only a cliffhanger if you care about the characters enough, not because of what the author isn’t telling you. Book three comes out in October and already I can’t wait!