Completed 3/24/2023, Reviewed 3/24/2023
This book was a tedious bore. I found it difficult to get through. I didn’t like the prose or the plot. The book takes place in San Francisco after the heyday of the ‘60s and before hi tech. It’s also an urban fantasy before the concept became a subgenre. It deals with an unknown horror in modern day San Fran. It tips its hat to several other literary figures, including Lovecraft. However, none of these things held any appeal for me. I don’t seem to have much luck with Leiber, having read two other books by him and not caring for either. This book won the 1978 World Fantasy Award.
Franz Westen is a horror writer who one day sees a cloaked figure on the top of Corona Heights waving at him through his binoculars from his apartment. Intrigued, he goes to the Heights and finds nothing of note. However, he turns his binoculars back to his apartment and the figure is there leaning out his window waving at him again. He does some investigation and finds that an author who believed in something called Megapolisomancy, the access of power of a large metropolis, put a curse on some fellow writers (his acolytes) and that curse seems to have found Franz.
Judging by the blurb about the book and this summary, it sounds like it might be an intriguing twist on the haunted place. However, not much happens after seeing the apparition. He does a lot investigation, which is how he finds out about this (fictional) author and the curse. To my dismay, a lot of the revelations were in the form of exposition and were tedious to read. The big info dump where Franz learns everything bored me to tears. Nothing supernatural happens again until the very end.
I kind of liked the characters. There’s Cal, as in Calpurnia, a harpsichordist with whom Franz had an affair after his wife died of brain cancer. Then there’s Gun and Saul, two friends of Franz who live in the same building. They were colorful characters and almost gay. Then there’s the Peruvian apartment manager, her daughter, and the chess loving maintenance man Fernando, whose relationship to the first two I couldn’t remember. All these characters go out to eat with Franz and have a lively conversation where Franz reveals what he’s seen. The interaction is playful and gives you a good idea of what each of the characters is like. That scene solidified that I liked them.
Franz himself is kind of a bore. He’s about a year sober after plunging into the depths of alcoholism after his wife died. Yes, he wonders if he is going insane often, but there’s no real evidence of him going through the struggle of what a newly sober person goes through. A year sober may seem like a long time, but in terms of getting your life back to some semblance of normalcy, it’s still a fresh trauma that is only beginning to heal.
I give this book two stars out of five. Either Leiber is an overrated author, or I just don’t get him. I read his Hugo winning books The Wanderer and The Big Time, and found them either lackluster or undecipherable. In all cases, I found the prose generally confusing and difficult to read. I’m probably not going to read anything else by him, despite him having won most of the major awards including the Grand Master award.
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