The Uncertain Places is a fantasy book incorporating fairy tales set in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s and some of the 1980s. The author, Lisa Goldstein, won the American Book Award for her novel The Red Magician. She has also been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and several other awards, including the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award.
Ben Avery and Will Taylor have been friends for years so it’s no surprise that when Ben begins dating Maddie Feierabend, he tries to hook Will up with her sister Livvy – and is correct that his friend will hit it off with her. Will continues to get to know Livvy while they both attend school at Berkeley, and both Will and Ben look forward to their visits with the entire charming family at their farmhouse in Napa Valley.
Yet as Will spends more and more time in the Feierabend home, he begins to notice strange occurrences. When he gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he finds a man cleaning the house. While exploring the woods one day, he overhears a conversation about a mysterious bargain but only sees crows nearby. He’s also noticed Livvy’s entire family seems to get uncomfortable whenever fairy tales are mentioned, and when he tries to assuage his curiosity about these matters, he gets the feeling he’s not getting the entire truth.
One day when Will is supposed to meet Livvy, she doesn’t show up. After he gives up on her coming by, he goes home and calls her. Livvy says she’s felt strange all day so they keep the conversation short and Will says he’ll call her tomorrow. The next day he keeps calling only to be told by her roommate that she is sleeping. Every time he calls to check on her, he receives the same response until it’s been long enough that he’s really worried about her. He goes to her apartment and then calls her mother to inform her about the situation and ask what she wants him to do. She asks him to bring Livvy home, and when he shows up with her the family seems very upset but not particularly surprised. As days go no with no change in Livvy, Will determines to discover the secret that the Feierabends are hiding – and do whatever it takes to get Livvy back.
When I was first offered a review copy of The Uncertain Places, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Lisa Goldstein before. A dark fantasy involving fairy tales sounded right up my alley and I love to discover new-to-me authors, so I was really looking forward to reading this book. It ended up being one of those books that’s hard to describe, though. It was not a bad book by any means or a struggle to get through, but it wasn’t quite for me, mainly because it didn’t really engage me while I was reading it or keep me thinking about it after I was finished, either. That special spark that moves a book from merely readable to truly enjoyable was missing, and this was largely due to a lack of any sort of emotional connection with any of the characters.
The best part of this book was the fairy tale of the bondsmaid, which as far as I can tell is an original tale with a lot of common fairy tale story elements. It was first set up as a mystery, starting with the general strangeness of the behavior of the entire Feierabend family and the different strange occurrences Will noticed as he spent more and more time at the farmhouse. Then Livvy began acting strangely as well and lapsed into sleeping for days on end. Soon, the entire story of the family’s bargain was revealed and the mystery became discovering more of the details of the past and just how to change the bargain. I loved this part of the story with its deals and tricks and how it fit in with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, as well as some of the little clues. However, there were times where the research and interviewing that went into solving the puzzle lagged down the pacing a bit.
The fairy tale would have worked a little better for me if it was a little bit creepier, though, and I think that having some sort of affinity with the characters would have gone a long way toward that. As is the case with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this was a dark story, but it failed to disturb me at all. Both Will and Livvy felt like characters in a story instead of real people with depth, and if I could have really cared about them or believed in either of them as more than a fictional creation in a tale, it would have had enough tension to do that. We were told some about who the characters were and their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and beliefs – Maddie with her anti-war political agenda; Livvy with her enjoyment of chemistry and cooking; Rose with her history; and Will with his new feminist outlook, psychological studies, determination, and that love for Livvy that fueled his fierce determination. In spite of that, they never seemed to come to life with vibrant personalities, though. There were conversations with banter that seemed to be trying to give them more of that personality, but a lot of it fell flat for me and seemed to be trying too hard with some punning and some lame jokes. (Fortunately, the bad puns were limited to the first chapter.)
Overall, The Uncertain Places was a decent book with a mysterious fairy tale merged with 1970s California, but it could have been a lot better if only the characters were less bland and some of the pacing was less uneven. It has not left me averse to reading another book by Lisa Goldstein at all since the actual story told was enjoyable, but it also hasn’t left me excited about the possibility of looking up her backlist of work.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: The publisher sent me an ARC.
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