The World House is the first original novel by veteran media tie-in author Guy Adams. It is the first part of a duology and, in the immortal words of Bernard Black, it's dreadful but quite short. Well . . . shortish.
The book begins with failed antiques dealer and gambler Miles about to have his legs broken by a loan shark. Beyond hope and full of cheap take-away food, Miles sets about getting drunk and smashing up the contents of his shop. As he does so, he catches a glimpse of a Chinese-looking box. A box that appears to change shape. Miles is somewhat freaked out by this, but does not have long to reflect on the matter before the loan shark and his hired goons turn up on his doorstep. Then Miles falls in the box. What he finds is a vast, sprawling Victorian mansion, filled with impossible rooms, impossible creatures and other people from other time periods who have also fallen into the box. Indeed, Miles quickly finds himself teamed up with a 1920s debutante and a Victorian explorer. There are others roaming the house, including a stripper, a jazz musician, an Edwardian sailor and a man who bears many different names. Fighting for survival and searching for a way out, these different groups of housebound individuals explore their new home and slowly piece together not only its true nature but also its place in human history.
With its airy prose style, short chapters, frequent changes of viewpoint, and unrelentingly quick tempo, The World House is clearly intended to be a no-nonsense thrill ride. A fast and furious romp through a big concept fantasy world filled with colourful characters and deadly danger. A heady cocktail of adventure and weirdness made by blending elements of Gaiman's wainscott fantasy TV series Neverwhere (1996) with ideas from the old Doctor Who serial Pyramids of Mars (1975). And initially at least, the splice seems to work.
Adams displays a real lightness of touch when it comes to characterisation. As we skip back and forth in time for our introductions to the book's sizeable cast of characters, Adams makes quick work of establishing the characters' personalities and giving them their own stylistic aura. An aura composed partly of the colloquial idosyncraties of the characters' speech patterns and partly of the language Adams uses when he first introduces the character. Consider, for example, the appearance of Tom, a martini-sodden hepcat with a thing for the shop-soiled showgirl Elise. We find him sitting in a diner on a wet night:
He would stop playing, pour himself straight up on to a barstool and graze on olives and punjabi mix until his tongue felt like a tramp's sock during a downpour. "It's, like, pure," he would burble, pointing at invisibles in the air between his and his audience and fixing them with an earnest stare. The sort of look that says that its owner knows . . . OK? He just fucking knows. (p. 71)
We then move on to a Philip Marlowe reference and Tom begins to speak in a tongue loaded with period detail:
"Knock me your lobes, daddy-o." (p. 72)
"Bad Jive, daddy-o." (p. 83)
Adams uses a similar combination of pastiched scene setting and colloquial dialogue to establish the Victorian adventurer Carruthers:
The man in the doorway was dressed in old-fashioned explorer's clothes: pale khaki jacket littered with pockets, long shorts, desert boots and a pith helmet. "My dears," he said, in a cultured voice richer than port-soaked stilton, "if you value your lives as you surely must, I beg you to heed me. The wildlife here is unpredictable and predominantly deadly. You dismiss it at your peril." At this he gave a jolly smile, his long bushy moustache rising like theatre drapes to reveal his shining teeth." (p. 93)
This pattern is then reproduced with a psychologically fragile American, a survivor of the Spanish civil war, an autistic girl and a 1980s yuppy. Adams turns on the style for the initial encounter and fixes the period (and genre) that birthed the character by sticking resolutely to their distinctive speech patterns. This means that, despite juggling a large cast and devoting very little space to character development, Adams manages to keep all of his characters distinct and memorable. However, this lightness of touch does wind up proving problematic in the long run.
While Adams' approach to characterisation allows not only the rapid introduction of characters but also their successful individuation, this success is largely due to a heavy reliance upon the associations that readers bring with them when they pick up the book. Indeed, when Adams writes about Tom and Carruthers, he is not creating unique characters out of whole cloth, he is effectively tapping into the audience's memories of similar characters introduced and developed by other authors in other works. As a result, if Tom and Carruthers come across as, respectively, a generic jazz musician and a generic explorer it is because that is precisely what they are. "Daddy-o"? A pith helmet? These props are carefully chosen. The individualised speech patterns may keep the characters separate from each other in our minds but our emotional link to them is forged by the literary pastiches that accompany their introductions.
Unfortunately for Adams, this approach to characterisation does come at a price as while stock characters require little work to introduce, they also fail to sustain much of an emotional bond with the reader. Indeed, despite the book moving breezily from one dangerous encounter to the next, it is difficult to really feel any tension or emotional involvement in the characters' plights because they are so utterly generic and two-dimensional. Simply put, Adams fails to develop his characters sufficiently to make us care about them and if one does not care about the characters in a thriller then all the chasing and fighting in the world cannot hope to generate any real excitement.
But perhaps I am being unfair.
The World House is, first and foremost, a story of exploration. The World House itself is the fantasy equivalent of a Big Dumb Object and while the novel may well be structured like a thriller, it ultimately stands or falls on the capacity of its central object to demand our attention. But this too proves to be problematic.
Big Dumb Objects are effectively inverted MacGuffins. When asked by François Truffaut to explain the concept of the MacGuffin, its originator Alfred Hitchcock told the following story:
"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?', and the other answers 'Oh that's a MacGuffin'. The first one asks 'What's a MacGuffin?'. 'Well', the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands'. The first man says 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands', and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no MacGuffin!'. So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all."
There are two partly overlapping ways of interpreting this story. The more concrete is that the second man has deployed a logical paradox as a way of telling the first man to mind his own bloody business. However, the second and more abstract interpretation of the story is that the actual contents of the package do not matter because the package exists only as a means of kick-starting a conversation between the two men. Indeed, a MacGuffin is popularly understood to be a fictional object that exists in order to drive a plot. Whether it is the Maltese Falcon, the Golden Fleece or the eerily shimmering contents of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase, the MacGuffin holds no inherent value or interest. Its inclusion in a story is purely a means to an end, the end that is human drama.
Big Dumb Objects are also objects that sit at the heart of a story, but rather than serving as a catalyst to force the plot and characters into the foreground, Big Dumb Objects tend to dominate the stories that feature them. In effect, they turn human elements such as plot and characterisation into methods for controlling the flow of information about the object. Excuses for moving the authorial camera. Reasons for misleading the reader. The ends of a Big Dumb Object story are always the object itself and the dramatic elements of the story are merely a means of exploring those ends. So while the dramatic elements of The World House may be threadbare and unconvincing, the book could still work if the Big Dumb Object is intriguing enough to support an entire novel. But therein lies the problem.
The World House tries so hard to be light and breezy that its refusal to get bogged down in any kind of exposition is annoyingly absolute. Its characters receive no real development but then neither does its central concept. Indeed, the House itself is actually quite dull: what weirdness there is comes from rather pedestrian attempts to exaggerate the characteristics of an otherwise quite normal house. So instead of a bathroom, we have a bathroom so huge that its bath is the size of an ocean. Instead of a library, we have a library so huge that it contains biographies of every person that has ever lived. Instead of a greenhouse we have a vast forest. The dullness of the House is not improved by the fact that the exposition dries up in the middle of the novel so as to allow Adams the opportunity to blow the reader's head off in the final fifty pages with a series of actually quite predictable but supposedly game-changing revelations that set the stage for the second book in the series. This is unfortunate, since if the House and its inhabitants are not substantial enough to support a single four hundred page novel then I have no idea how Adams and Angry Robot expect them to support two.
It is tempting at this point to suggest that The World House was doomed from the start as it tries to satisfy both the need for speed and lightness of the thriller and the need for detailed exposition of the Big Dumb Object yarn or secondary world fantasy story. However, this is an entirely artificial dichotomy. Works like Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), Sedia's The Secret History of Moscow (2007) and even the early books of Stross' Merchant Princes series demonstrate that it is possible to tell exciting and swiftly-moving adventure stories that revolve around the exploration of an entire world. In fact, The World House's ambitions are entirely reasonable. It is simply that Guy Adams is not quite up to the challenge of satisfying them.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.
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