Two years ago, I read a short little novel titled Hearts of Oak and came away as bitter as old bark. It was bland with a few twists and turns that kept the plot moving, and ended with such a slap in the face, I was turned off from Eddie Robson for a while. Lo and behold, I was flabbergasted when Andrew slapped an ARC of Robson’s latest novel, Drunk On All Your Strange New Words, on top of my TBR pile. The joy of receiving the first volume of the Berserk manga overshadowed by the work that lay ahead. In my typical fashion, I decided to dive right in and do my job. Robson’s latest is a tedious dive into the future of social media, and conspiratorial plots that might fit right in with today’s headlines.
Lydia is a human translator for the Logi, a peaceful alien race that can only communicate telepathically. She works specifically with their cultural attaché, Fitz. Only a small set of humanity has the ability to receive their brainwaves, and even fewer of them make it through the rigorous training required of them to act as official translators. Even after they make it through, the process of translation makes the human feel as if they are drunk, making their duty quite exhausting. After a “drunken” altercation with a theater producer, and a short vacation home to Halifax U.K., Lydia wakes up one morning to find Fitz murdered. Considering she’s the last one who saw him alive, she is suspect numero uno. And something strange is going on that she’s never heard about before; she can still hear Fitz, and he might just help her solve the case.
I’m going to start with the positive. Though a little annoying at times, I do think Robson walks the fine line of portraying a heightened state of social media in the future. It’s an attempt that sometimes crosses over into boomer territory, while also offering some commentary on the idea of measuring the “truthiness” of individual posts, and how those systems could be gamed. And while some of the posts are pretty cringey, they were one of the few things I found myself chuckling at during my read. I just wish there was a little more done with them. They kind of serve as window dressing, breaking up the monotony a little bit.
Other than that, though, a lot of the issues I had with Hearts of Oak reared their ugly heads here. The characters were barely fleshed out. Lydia had the most going for her, but even she felt like a reader stand-in. I can tell you she’s from Halifax, likes to drive cars without automation, and is probably bisexual. Oh, she also doesn’t want to go to jail for something she is pretty sure she didn’t do, the main impetus for solving the crime. There wasn’t much of a set up for her relationship with Fitz to really make his death feel like a crime beyond the fact that he was an alien who was murdered. The folks that Lydia interacts with through the story come and go as needed to make the plot feel like it was moving, but they were barely even there. Robson’s writing is serviceable but doesn’t add a lot of feeling. The scenery was barely noticeable, to the point where one scene took place on the roof of a building and I didn’t notice it until halfway through the scene.
I will say, just to clear the air, I am generally not a fan of murder mysteries. Solving the mystery doesn’t work on its own for me, and I need more buy-in. I want motives, I want character, I want intrigue, and maybe that makes me a greedy bastard. I want to care about the outcome; I don’t want to just feel good having solved it before the main character. And for the love of humanity, don’t just hoodwink me with an unearned twist. Unfortunately, none of those criteria were really met in Drunk. Every single event felt designed to infuriate me specifically, each gallivanting as Schrodinger’s red herring. I know that’s how mysteries are supposed to work, but none of the trails or reveals had much weight, besides one, which Robson deserves a bit of commendation for. It utilized Chekhov’s gun, relied on the limited information Lydia had at her disposal, and the translation aspect of the book. It wasn’t amazing, but I did like it.
In terms of themes and commentary though, I found the book lacking. Now this will probably come off a bit harsh, but the translation aspect was pretty low effort. Considering the toll that it takes on the translators, and the lack of verbal speech by the Logi, I expected a little more feeling, a little more nuance. Instead, it’s just some italics missing “he said, she said.” There were barely any moments where Lydia even actually translated Logisi to other humans, often just sticking to conversation between her and Fitz, or later Madison. It also feels irrelevant to the story, it’s just a neat little thing that makes it feel like an alien contact novel. I wanted more connection to the story, to the happenings, to the damn murder, and the state of politics. Instead, it just feels like “we just need to be better at communicating” without even doing by example. It just takes it as a given that a novel about alien translations should be about the need to say nicer things to each other.
What is so frustrating is that the pieces are there. The truthiness for social media posts, the constant need to update one’s feed to be presentable to the world, and the possibility for camaraderie between Lydia and the Logi she interacts with. Instead, it feels like the reader has to do all of the work in their own head in order for the novel to have a point. To make the points Robson grasps for, make sense. And after all of that, the murder mystery ends with Robson farting in your face, as if the mystery was just an ephemeral hot wind. I’m all for subversion, and I will admit there was a bit of work put into this one, at least until the very end. But fuck me was I pissed at the final reveal. Not because I got it wrong, but because it felt unearned.
I don’t think Andrew could make me read more Robson, even if it meant I’d get booted from the site. His books feel like screenplays for long running adventure serials, not necessarily bad, just not the right medium. Here’s this weird scenario, how does one deal with it?! There is no atmosphere, no character, no stakes beyond what the reader adds. And that might work for you, but for me, it’s a deal breaker.
Rating: Drunk On All Your Strange New Words 4.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.