Ian Mond Reviews The Splendid City by Karen Heuler

The Splendid City, Karen Heuler (Angry Robot 978-0-85766-985-8, £9.99, 400pp, tp) June 2022.

Karen Heuler’s fifth novel, The Splendid City, begins with a human-sized talking cat, wearing a bow-tie and a fanny pack, shooting a woman in the arm over a disagreement about mushroom roots and the internet. The feline’s name is Stan. He was once a human, working in a gift store in New York alongside a fledgling witch named Eleanor. Stan’s awful treatment of his co-worker (the extent of which is kept from us until much later in the novel) sees Eleanor, fuelled by anger and revenge, turn Stan into a cat. As punishment for acting so rashly, Eleanor is sent with Stan by her coven to Texas, now known as Liberty since it seceded from America, to search for a missing witch. They both discover, however, that there’s something decidedly odd and rotten about the newly minted sovereign state. Water is rationed, essential commodities like cheese, milk, and toilet paper are scarce, Google has been replaced with “Wiggle,” and people are randomly grabbed off the streets. Yet the populace, who blame all their problems on “Easterners” like Stan and Eleanor, adore their “local” President. There are daily parades where people are showered with nou­gats, and the streets are lined with animatronic heads of the President, checking on the welfare of every citizen. As Eleanor begins investigating the witch’s disappearance, her excitable and gun-toting companion is drawn into a treasure hunt for a fortune hidden by a Texas millionaire more than a century ago.

There’s something refreshing about reading a genre novel that’s a commentary on the “current moment” and isn’t set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian nightmare. That’s precisely what Karen Heuler delivers with The Splendid City. It’s a “cozy” fantasy where on the opening page, a talk­ing cat declares: “I’m finding it very hard to have a reasonable conversation these days. Everyone shouts sound bites and no one shouts facts.” Heuler’s enjoy­able blend of absurdity and satire extends to Liberty’s unreliable maps, with topography constantly chang­ing, the aforementioned bespoke search-engine Wiggle (developed by the President who “spent a year getting the scientists to straighten out all the misinformation in Google”), and the disappearance of people off the streets involving a tan van with a “cheerful logo on the body, a smiling chicken with a frying pan.” It’s this storybook twee-ness that makes the distortion of truth in Liberty all the more chilling.

A third of the way through The Splendid City, Heuler takes us back in time to New York, where she fleshes out Eleanor’s back-story. We’re told about how she became aware of her reality-bending pow­ers as a teenager; we also witness her first quirky encounter in the gift store with the local New York coven, and we come to understand why Eleanor felt compelled to turn her co-worker into a cat. It’s all very well written, especially Eleanor’s introduction into Wiccan culture and spell-casting, underscored by the belief that “We do not destroy life or alter its values out of judgment” (a rule that Eleanor breaks). But in contrast to the colourful pantomime that is Liberty, this lengthy, chapter-spanning flashback is far darker in tone. There’s Eleanor’s troubled up­bringing, with her father walking out on the family the moment her mother showed the first signs of de­mentia, and there’s Stan’s alarming behaviour toward Eleanor, starting with negging and gas-lighting and evolving to outright stalking. The flashback changes how we view Eleanor, but especially Stan. As a cat, he’s introduced to us as a raucous, unpredictable, and larger-than-life character: he steals every scene he’s in. But in reality, he is an abuser, one who unsuc­cessfully attempts to break into Eleanor’s house. The problem is that Heuler never views Stan as anything more than a harmless nuisance. This is evidenced by the coven’s decision to send Eleanor with her abuser to Liberty on the flimsy pretence that they can’t have a human-sized cat walking the streets of Manhattan.

When we return to Liberty in the final third, Heuler switches back to a bright, bubbly tone dripping with irony. I, however, found it very difficult to enjoy Stan’s ongoing hijinks and cheeky duplicity, given what I knew of his true nature. It’s not helped that he’s never forced to reckon with his treatment of Eleanor and even comes to love being a cat (provided he’s magicked a pair of opposable thumbs). It’s a shame, because I loved the opening section of The Splendid City, loved how cleverly and deftly Heuler balanced the absurd with the political.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.

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