I say, as I dip my toe again and again into horror, that I’m not much of a horror guy. And there’s a lot of truth to it. But I’ve liked everything I’ve read from Victor LaValle, whose Lone Women was one of my favorite books of 2023. And so I’m going to keep reading him, horror author or not. This time, I’m circling back to his World Fantasy Award winning The Changeling. Spoiler: I still like everything I’ve read from LaValle.
The Changeling opens with something of a literary fiction vibe—and indeed, the publisher tags it as literary fiction in addition to horror and fantasy—following a young, Black New Yorker as he grows up, finds his passion dealing in rare books, finding love, and starting a family. But even if the title weren’t hint enough, there are plenty of indicators that everything is not as it seems. And indeed, it’s not long before his wife starts acting distant and paranoid, claiming their baby is not really their baby. It only gets worse from there.
As the publisher’s categorization suggests, this is a changeling of a book, moving back and forth through literary fiction, horror, and fantasy. There is, of course, no rule saying that one book can’t be all three at the same time, and this book never really loses any of the three, but there are subtle tonal shifts as the three trade off feeling like the main genre. There’s time spent in the mundane, there’s fairy tale, there’s inexplicable horror, there’s time back in the mundane, etc. The Changeling is all three, and most impressively, it’s fascinating no matter where the focus lies. The lead simply living his life is just as engrossing as him grappling with unfathomable horror—it’s a true credit to the storytelling, and the reason I keep coming back to LaValle. As someone whose oldest child was born around the time this book was being written, a lot of the parenting sections hit especially hard, but all of the ordinary is exemplary.
There are plenty of clues about where the plot goes, but I don’t want to say too much and spoil the general shape of things for the reader. But as a primarily fantasy reader, it was interesting to see a lead so thoroughly on the outside of the fantastical events. There’s plenty of fantasy about outsiders, but outsider protagonists often spend a significant portion of the early narrative being brought up to speed on what’s going on. Here, it’s quite opaque what’s happening until well into the book, with the perspective centered firmly on what would’ve been a confused relative in another novel. Again, it’s told so skillfully the confusion never leads to boredom, and it’s likely no coincidence that these sections include the most effective horror of the book—it’s much easier to be terrified of something so poorly understood.
As I said in the open, I devote relatively little of my reading time to horror, but my impression is that the genre tends to linger in the poorly understood until the bitter end—or else take a turn into the grotesque, but I try to avoid those. But while LaValle keeps his characters in the dark for longer than I’d expect in a fantasy novel, none of the three novels I’ve read from him leave the reader with much ambiguity. And I like more definitive resolutions in my novels than in my short fiction, so I generally see that as a positive, but The Changeling might err a bit too far in that direction. Many of the antagonists being mouthpieces for a particularly odious strain of American politics is not in itself a problem, but it took what appeared to be a lot of intriguing moral complexity and flattened it into a stark divide that rang false after what had come before. I’m loathe to say a book that puts the hero through such hell has made it easy for the protagonist, but it did make things surprisingly neat. That neatness doesn’t undercut the fantastic book that came before, and it certainly still creates a satisfying ending, but it did make for a book that didn’t end quite as well as it started.
Overall, The Changeling is a terrific book that’s just as good when it’s showing its literary face as its horrifying one (and vice versa). The ending doesn’t quite maintain the delicious messiness of what came before, which lowers the final product in my eyes from “perhaps my favorite book of the year” to “an easy five stars.” But, well, it’s still an easy five stars, and a book I heartily recommend.
Recommend if you like: horror, dark fantasy, literary SFF, theme-heavy SFF.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Horror and Literary SFF, and quite possibly Myths and Retellings, though I’m not sure if it retells a specific myth. It is also written by a POC Author and includes Mundane Jobs.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.