Don't read Alan Averill's The Beautiful Land expecting a plot-driven thriller with a ticking bomb and an evil conspiracy. The book offers those things, but they're not the best part. Instead, the heart of this book is a relationship story about a man and a woman, facing the end of the multiverse. Spoilers ahead...
In The Beautiful Land, scientists have developed a time machine — except that it's not a time machine, and instead it enables travel between different universes and planes of reality. Including worlds where everything sort of looks like Super Mario Bros. The scientists aren't really sure how to use the machine, so they turn to Tak O'Reilly, a wilderness survival expert and star of a Japanese reality TV show. There's only one problem: Tak is in the middle of trying to kill himself.
The whole thing quickly spirals into a weird "saving the world" type storyline. One group of people want to use the machine to seize control over reality. But its creator has even more sinister plans, involving destroying all of the universes except for one, the so-called Beautiful Land where the laws of physics are malleable. So it's up to Tak and his childhood friend Samira to save the universes, at great cost.
There's a lot of entertaining weirdness and running around, and Tak makes for an engaging hero, who's always ready to head into an extreme situation feet first, surviving by his wits. Once he gets past his desire to commit suicide and becomes a transdimensional adventurer, Tak seldom seems to look back, especially once he's reunited with Samira.
Samira, meanwhile, is a troubled person, especially after two stints as a translator in Afghanistan, helping with coercive interrogations and watching all her friends die horribly. There's one memorable sequence, early on, where she's obsessively scrubbing every surface in her home, but there's one red stain that keeps reappearing no matter how many times she cleans — and it turns out to be blood coming from the knuckles she's rubbed raw.
This book definitely makes a stab at having an exciting plot about evil scientists and the potential end of everything — but honestly, the plot isn't the main draw here. The plot mechanics involve a lot of hand-waving, and the main baddie is never quite more than a one-dimensional maniac. Even after finishing the book, I wasn't entirely sure how the resolution was supposed to have worked, exactly, and there were a number of parts where I felt a bit bogged down by exposition and infodumps.
Rather, the real action of the book is all about the relationship between Tak and Samira, childhood friends who are finally falling in love. And it's their characters, and their intertwined storylines, that elevate this book above "generic thriller" territory. Averill makes a few clever choices that allow you to get inside the characters — like, for example, the process of traveling between universes involves a period where you're reliving your own randomly chosen memories. So every time our heroes leave one reality for another, they are flung into a series of brief and intense flashbacks. And when they travel together, they experience each other's memories, which deepens their connection and brings up a lot of interesting issues. Also, Averill does a good job of switching back and forth between the two main characters' POVs without feeling clunky.
The business of saving the universe is pretty neat at times — but what's really gripping in this book is Tak and Samira saving each other, and claiming each other in a really deep and moving fashion.
And the stories of Tak and Samira also allow Averill to get at what seems to be his main preoccupation in this book — the ways in which the past is still real in the present, and how our experiences define us. Samira is struggling with straight-up PTSD and depression from her time in Afghanistan, but Tak also has a lot of guilt from his time helping the scientists to exploit the multiverse. And both characters have had complicated, troubled relationships with their now-deceased fathers.
And Averill's prose style is zippy and engaging. Like here's a snippet from when Tak is on his way to confront the big bad in the middle of the Australian outback:
Right now, he's on The Track, moving at a steady ninety-five and enjoying the ride. He likes driving, especially when it's on a long stretch of lonely road where he can imagine he's the only person left in the world. His only regret is that he doesn't have a bandana-wearing dingo to curl up on the passenger seat beside him. He knows it's silly, this happiness he feels. A smarter person would be scared out of his mind at the thought of storming the headquarters of the world's most powerful and dangerous man. But Tak is filled with the confidence and fearlessness that comes with an empty stomach, little sleep, and the knowledge that he's on a quest to save his childhood love. And so he drives and allows himself to believe that everything's going to be all right.
It's fun stuff, and the love story ends up pulling you along, until the main plot hits its stride and serves up the requisite amount of para-apocalyptic thrills. This book might draw you in with its cool transdimensional and end-of-the-world action, but the story of two childhood sweethearts who find something to live for together is what sticks in your mind afterwards.