Last Exit, by Max Gladstone, is a beautifully written character story that I had an extremely hard time connecting with. Many readers who pick up this standalone adventure will find a mesmerizing story about self-discovery, penance, and the nature of the world. Max Gladstone is a favorite author of mine for his work on The Craft Sequence and Bookburners. However, with Last Exit, I found a book that moved way too slowly for my taste. The endless inner dialogue and excessive introspection bogged down my reading experience until it ground to a halt.
Ten years ago, our protagonist Zelda led a band of college occult adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake worlds. The group was made up of Zelda the warrior; Ish, who could locate people anywhere; Ramon, who always knew what path to take; Sarah, who could turn catastrophe aside; and finally Sal, who was that friend who was just kinda there. When a mission to fight the rot went awry and resulted in the death of Sal, the group broke up, never to speak again. As penance, Zelda now continues the fight against the rot on her own — only taking a yearly break to pilgrimage to Sal’s family and beg for forgiveness for her part in her untimely death. But, the rot is getting worse and the world is falling apart. Can the team come back together for one last mission, overcome their trauma, and save reality before the rot consumes everything?
Let’s start with the good: Last Exit is atmospherically brilliant. As with most of his books, Gladstone is a master of weaving ambiance and setting into a living and breathing organism that suffuses you. The world of Last Exit is creepy beyond belief and the nightmares that populate it haunted my dreams long after finishing the book. The imagery of the book is extremely vivid, which is more impressive than usual thanks to its urban fantasy setting. Gladstone manages to paint our world in an ethereal quality that feels both real and fantasy at the same time.
The characters also have a lot of depth and beauty. Although it hurts the book’s pacing greatly, the story goes into rich mini backstory segments for each of the cast that shows you the forces in their life that made them into who they are now. They are very intense and emotional character trauma sessions that will leave you emotionally moved and drained. This is true of all of the characters except Sal, who I had trouble buying into, and is the first of many issues I had with my read.
Ostensibly, Sal is the heart and glue of the group that held them all together. In reality, it is pretty clear that Zelda actually occupies that role and that Sal was just how everyone met once upon a time and was Zelda’s love interest. I am really not a fan of “dead partners” looming over stories as vague motivations for characters and Sal in particular felt massively underdeveloped when compared to the extreme depth that the rest of the cast got. While the character examinations are impressive, after a while it starts to feel like there isn’t a lot of plot beyond who these people are and their personalities. That isn’t necessarily a problem, I often love purely character-driven books, but this one just seemed to drag and I found Zelda’s motivations difficult to buy into.
One of my biggest problems with the book is the underlying implications of one of its key themes. A big portion of the story is devoted to hunting down and carving out the rot of the world. It is implied that all of the troubles of the world (from hunger to police brutality to people just being dicks) stem from this rot. We eventually discover the rot source and (to me) the implications of the source do not paint a good picture when extrapolated to “why bad things happen to good people” in our world. The metaphysics of what the rot actually is gets very complicated at the end, and it’s possible I just read it incorrectly. In addition, if I am correct in my analysis, I think it is an accidental implication, not what Gladstone was actually going for. However, I can’t actually delve into further detail without spoiling the ending so I will just have to wait and talk to other people who finished the book.
Overall, Last Exit is a trademark Gladstone novel with his signature rich worldbuilding and evocative characters. However, the slow pacing and messing character motivations of the protagonist left me with a book that I struggled to get through due to a poor connection with the cast and themes. I am sure that many people who want a diverse character-driven story will love this, but it was not for me.
Rating: Last Exit – 6.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.