Book Review: In the Valley of the Kings, by Terrence Holt

A few months ago, I plunged into the bookstore looking for new reading material, and Christie spotted me wandering around looking for books and asked if I wanted a recommendation. I said yes, because I generally like her recommendations, and she picked up a small paperback. ‘This book,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t handsell this to just anyone this way, but I know you will get it. This book is dark, depressing, and totally bleak. You’ll love it.’

The book she was holding was In the Valley of the Kings, and she was absolutely right about it on all counts. Christie and I, I think, have similar tastes in reading material and we are very much drawn to books like this. A lot of her recommendations are complex, dark, and very engaging for that reason. (Alas, I have learned to my despair that many people do not share my tastes for very stark, depressing books, so I have learned to be more careful about my book recommendations, as what delights me often sends other people screaming for the hills.)

In the Valley of the Kings is a collection of short stories. There are some common themes you see spreading through some of them; in particular, Holt seems very interested in science fiction and space and as a result there are several science fiction stories. But this is not a book of science fiction, necessarily. I suppose it’s what they would call ‘literary fiction’ these days and the stories run a gamut of settings and styles. Which is actually something I really like from short stories. I feel like this genre provides authors with a chance to strut their stuff, show me what they’ve got, and impress me. If each story feels the same, I’m gonna raise an eyebrow, because, for me, short stories are about presenting people with a box of carefully cut gemstones, each distinctly unique and faceted and lovely. If I get a jumble of uniform pebbles, it shows me that an author does not have very much range.

Holt has range. These stories are varied. They are sometimes bizarre. They are definitely dark and bleak; this isn’t the kind of book you read if you want to read something intense, but uplifting. The ultimate conclusions about the human condition, about people in general, about the world, are not really very happymaking. You probably won’t sympathise with or like, really, any of the characters you encounter in these pages. I like books where the author is unafraid to let you dislike the characters. It’s not that Holt is creating caricatures for you to dislike, a style I strongly and vehemently loathe, it’s that Holt is willing to let the characters be themselves. If you want to meet them in the middle, great, if you don’t, feel free to hate them (or identify with them, as the case may be).

The style is also very distinctive. While it differs between stories, it’s very lyrical; Holt has a very expressive voice and he’s got a great way with using words to paint scenes and emotions. I’m drawn into the setting because it’s elegantly, neatly, and beautifully described. He makes me pay attention to fine details in the story and one of the things I love is that even as he presents these little details, they aren’t necessarily important to the plot. He’s ok with embellishing and he knows you sit there through the story going ‘when is this going to play in,’ and then it never does.

And it’s disjointed. I happen to like disjointed writing styles, when they are done well. The book kept me on edge, as a reader. Not because I was afraid of what might happen next, but because I felt very unbalanced. The rug was being pulled from under me constantly and sometimes I wasn’t even sure where the rug was. I felt for it with my feet, but, no, it would yank back at the last second. The shifting scenery and perspectives and that sense of choppy passages of time is hard to do well; at its worst, it can feel clunky, trite, and overdone. Or it can be so hopelessly confusing that you lose focus and stop following the plot or the characters because you’re so tangled up.

These are meaty, delicious, very juicy stories. You can read them multiple times and get more out of them each time, or let your brain drift in a different direction and get a completely new take on the characters and the events. It’s a book that is well worth buying because you’ll keep coming back to it, assuming that you like this particular style of writing (and reading, for that matter, the book does require you to sit and focus, it’s not intended to be light or frivolous reading).

If you like bleakness with no redeeming qualities, you will probably like this book. If you’re interested in battles between minds; between two opposing minds at different points in time, between people and computers, between people and their own minds, I think you might get a kick out of In the Valley of the Kings. These stories are surreal and irrational and not in a shiny magical realism kind of way or an overwrought gothic style. These sneak up on the reader in a way I really like, because I enjoy being snuck up on. It seems to take a lot to surprise me these days and Holt accomplished it in several of his stories.

As it turns out, he’s been writing and publishing for over 15 years, but I was totally unaware of him. This book makes me want to seek out more of his work and devour it before it gets a chance to run away.