The Narrows

by Alexander C. Irvine

Published by Del Rey

352 pages, 2005



Feat of Clay

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


You had to know from the get-go that Alexander C. Irvine was going to be a writer to watch. His debut novel, 2002's A Scattering of Jades, managed to be lucid and haunting at the same time. No simple feat. The community that spawned him took note. A Scattering of Jades earned Irvine the Crawford Award for Best New Writer and both Locus Magazine and the International Horror Guild gave him the nod for best new novel.

The trouble with a beginning that auspicious tends to be in following up. Everyone watches very closely to see what comes next. Is there any way it will be as good as what came before? In 2004, Irvine delivered that follow up with the critically acclaimed One King, One Soldier, the book that Lucius Shepard said, "strips the word 'promising' from Alex Irvine's resume and marks him as a strong new American voice."

That was last year.

This year, here on the edge of our seats, we wait for this strong new voice to falter, to show any signs of weakness. We wait, in a way, in fear, because we've seen it happen too often. The startling debut, the satisfying second book followed by... something less.

With the arrival of the unfortunately titled The Narrows, (unfortunate because it's a title that's been used so much before, notably by a recent novel by bestselling crime fictionist Michael Connelly), Alexander C. Irvine's growing fanbase can heave a big sigh of relief. Not only has Irvine not faltered here, he's raised the bar even higher.

Here's a taste from the beginning of the beginning of The Narrows:

Midnight in the golem factory. Sweat and clay and blisters. Twitching pains in the wrist and the small of the back. The door to Moises' sanctum opens and closes. The motion of Moises' passing bangs the row of hanging platforms together, as if the unlivened molds were thrashing in whatever nightmares afflict clay that knows it must be born.

The writing is powerful, clear and absolutely immediate and Irvine's talent is such that The Narrows is seldom anything but a thrilling ride.

Here's what's happening. With a sleight of hand due extreme talent and the wonders of modern fiction, The Narrows takes place in a sort of alternate 1940s Detroit where a wartime Ford factory churns out golems (yes, golems!) rather than automobiles and the assembly line is run by a crazed rabi.

Kept from the front by a slight injury -- and something more sinister the reader discovers fairly early on -- Jared Cleaves is frustrated by his life on the secret Frankenline and wishes he could do more for the war effort; something that would make his family proud. It takes a while for him to realize that the something he can do is not overseas but, quite literally, beneath his feet.

Readers that generally avoid alternate history novels won't necessarily be put off by Irvine's tale. The Narrows is carefully crafted, stunningly presented and absolutely worthy of this author. And, for those who really can't get enough of this writer, another novel -- this one from Subterranean Press called Life of Riley -- will also be released this fall. | September 2005


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.