Book Review: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
Darrin’s life has taken an awful turn: Within the space of one month, he lost his job, his car, and his girlfriend, Bridget, who walked out of his life with no explanation. Six months later while wandering aimlessly around San Francisco, he encounters Bridget for the first time since she left him – only to see her jump to her death off the Golden Gate bridge.
In his search to find out why Bridget killed herself, he gets caught up in the web of connections surrounding the briarpatch, an interdimensional labyrinth that connects all worlds probable and improbable. And it turns out that among the the people who help or hinder his quest – his own traitorous best friend, an immortal man who wields the power of despair, a man with no sense of taste or smell, an earthy psychopath with a taste for chrome shotguns, and a man who drives the world’s most unusual car – Darrin may be most improbable visitor to the briarpatch yet.
Warning: spoilers below.
The best thing about Briarpatch is the worldbuilding. Imagine a bar that serves vampires, or a world of sentient bees that cooperate with beekeepers to produce hallucinogenic honey. That’s the kind of imagery that this book delivers with regularity. There are bridges of moonlight that could lead to paradise, and there are supernatural creatures in the shape of cars that show up just where they need to be. There are immortal people who involuntarily teleport in order to prevent themselves from being killed, and there are insane humans who shape-shift into bears.
The way the briarpatch and its effects on people are described, the more I want to visit it myself. There are moments of love and joy and despair, like the immortal man who wanted to be on the moonlit bridge so much that he nearly starved to death basking in its reflected glory – only to have his body become desperate enough to teleport him away to a riverbed so that he could avoid dying of dehydration.
However, in many cases, the plot has serious problems with exposition. The scheme of the main antagonist, Ismael Plenty, is byzantine at best: Ismael is immortal and wants to die, and feels that the only way he can do so is to enter a distant, hard-to-reach part of the briarpatch that shimmers with the light of Heaven. He is convinced that only Darrin can lead the way, because Darrin – like Ismael – is a pure, spontaneous manifestation of the briarpatch itself. Yet he’s also convinced that the only way Darrin can enter the briarpatch is to feel intense despair – which is why Ismael has orchestrated the collapse of his life. When Darrin reaches the brink of despair, Ismael plans to swoop in and offer entry to the briarpatch as the solution to his problems.
However, this plan flies in the face of Ismael’s interactions with other characters: Before he meets Darrin, he introduces not one, not two, but three of his friends to it, and they all agree, either knowingly or unknowingly, to be part of Ismael’s despair-inducing plan. If it’s so easy for him to convince Darrin’s friends about the importance of the briarpatch, why not approach Darrin himself honestly? I just don’t get it.
On top of that, there was one scene that stopped the action in its tracks, where several of the main characters met up and explained everything they knew to each other. In turn, they described in detail their interactions with Ismael and Darrin, and what Ismael promised each of them for their involvement. I understand that this scene needed to happen, but its placement in the book is disorienting: It’s in the middle, and a similar all-is-revealed scene happens right near the end. Having a climactic scene like that repeated alters the flow of the book and reduces the impact of the second version near the end.
Finally, while several of the characters are relatable or interesting to read about – Bridget, who is always yearning for new experiences; Orville, the aforementioned man without taste or smell; Arturo, who drives a supernatural being in the shape of a car with trance-inducing headlights – Darrin himself is not very memorable. He’s a reasonable, friendly every-man who likes to tool around San Fran taking unusual photographs. Yet he seems too bland and normal – not other-worldly enough – to be taken seriously as an avatar of such a surreal place as the briarpatch.
Up next: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg