My apologies for the incredibly late review. Perhaps starting a monthly book club and graduate school at the same time was a trifle over-ambitious. If you too are pressed for time, here’s my short review: Damn, that was a good book. Go get it!

Everyone knows about the Witches’ Carnival: the group of near-immortal hedonists who travel from town to town across the world, throwing the wildest party anyone’s ever attended, if you’re lucky enough to hear about it and cool enough to get in, and then vanishing without a trace. And if you’re really lucky, smart, cool, wild, and brave, maybe they’ll take you with them.

Alabama high school girls Gilly and Sam have been best friends since Sam rescued Gilly from homophobic bullying. Gilly longs to be beautiful and cool, and does her best by putting on an aggressive punk front. She’s not-so-secretly in love with Sam, which is hard to get over given that Sam, who identifies as straight, does sometimes have sex with her. It’s an unusually realistic depiction of how confusing and fluid sexuality, sexual orientation, and identity can be. After Sam gets in a horrendous fight with her family, she convinces Gilly to come with her to seek out the Witches’ Carnival. Gilly steals $50,000 of her crooked cop father’s dirty money, and they hit the road.

The novel reminded me a little bit of earlyish books by Charles de Lint and a lot of earlyish books by Francesca Lia Block, but less cute and more gritty. Some of the grittiness is laid on heavily, but it’s also genuinely edgy: not only is there explicit teen lesbian sex (much of it very satisfyingly hot), but the girls’ dialogue is politically incorrect in the extreme, and there is a detailed (and quite interesting) explanation of how to create a fake US passport. Not to mention an enormous amount of drug-taking. In fact, while there is one disquieting bad trip, the novel sometimes read like the author had made a product placement deal with the Mescaline Producers of America.

Sam and Gilly – Gilly, especially – are believable, vivid characters, and their bond gives the book its emotional force. The prose is distinctive and sometimes quite beautiful. Halfway between a picaresque road trip novel and a more tightly plotted fantasy, nearly every character and incident has its own thematic or plot-related part to play in the whole. While the novel could be loglined “Bonnie and Clyde meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with teenage girls,” the other main reference point is Doctor Faustus. The climax, in which the characters must decide whether or not to make a very pricy deal with the not-quite-devils, is quite powerful. The ending isn’t the one I expected, but it’s satisfying.

There are some flaws. One of the immortals is Christopher Marlowe. When immortal traveling hedonist Christopher Marlowe is a character, it would be nice if 1) he had more than a cameo role, 2) he made any impression whatsoever. I liked the highly unconventional-for-modern-YA multiple-POVs, which gave the novel a sense of richness and scope lacking in most YA fantasy I’ve read lately, but we probably didn’t need quite as much of Gilly’s Dad’s POV as we got. Sometimes the grittiness felt calculated or over the top. At one point a character is running around and doing stuff with an injury severe enough that they would be more likely to be curled up on the sidewalk until they got taken away by ambulance.

Finally, there is a very important song which the characters view as their personal anthem and often sing. Many song lyrics which sound great when sung sound distinctly less great when read. Even an otherwise powerful song like “Born in the USA” contains the line “I’m a cool rocking Daddy in the USA.” Not to mention “da doo ron ron ron” and “gabba gabba hey.” However… the song lyrics were still distinctly not great.

But overall, I enjoyed the book a lot. All else aside, this reminded me of being sixteen and reading urban fantasies by people like Emma Bull and Charles de Lint, and how exciting it was to see magic in a city. That sort of fantasy is less popular nowadays, replaced by “My vampire/angel/zombie boyfriend” and “I kick vampire/angel/zombie ass” novels, which have different conventions and of which I’m less fond. Tripping to Somewhere is old school in a way that feels new and fresh.

Feel free to put spoilers in comments.

Tripping to Somewhere. Only $5.99 on Kindle, and well worth it.

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