Reviewers note: My review copy of I Am Providence was provided by Edelweisse for WeTheNerdy.com, but the review hasn’t gone up yet because [redacted] made a mistake. The novel releases August 9th, 2016
When I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever really enjoyed a who-done-it story. As soon as I know I’m involved in one, I of course try and piece the clues together to figure out who murdered whom and with what. The problem is, guessing right isn’t all that validating when you want to be surprised, yet guessing wrong usually leaves me feeling like I’ve been tricked in a bad way.
It’s all fun and games until the ending, when it’s either annoyance or disappointment. There’s a reason why I stay away from the genre.
The reason I didn’t skip over I am Providence by Nick Mamatas is that I really, really enjoyed The Last Weekend, his previous novel which came out earlier in the year. (Aside: Congrats Nick on releasing two books in a year! Damn!) I’m willing to take genre risks if I know I like the author.
I Am Providence was sold to me as a horror novel, though there’s little scare to be had. Much like The Last Weekend, it’s a character study on terrible people, or in this case, character studies. The plot takes place at The Summer Tentacular, a con for Lovecraft enthusiasts, all of whom are awful, twisted, and strange in their own delightful ways. The main characters are Colleen and Panossian; the former a newbie to the event and the latter a cynical writer who gets himself murdered.
Panossian’s death isn’t a spoiler since half the novel is narrated by him as fading ghost trapped inside his own dead body. He remembers everything up until the point where he was killed and his face was removed, but not that last crucial bit.
That right there is the only scary part of the book. It’s a terrible thought, being trapped in your corpse while waiting to be embalmed or even buried, stuck forever in blackness. It’s one of the irrational reasons I want to be cremated when I die. At least I’d get blown all over the place and get to view the sky.
The way Panossian handles the whole thing takes some of the scare away though. He’s obviously not happy about it, but much like Billy of The Last Weekend, there’s something a bit too fun about his depression and desperation that turns it from horror into a dark comedy. Panossian has a wonderful voice and tons of opinions, and since he has nothing but time, he lets his mind wander. He jumps from backstory to facts on Lovecraft to his opinions on those who attend the Tenatulcar every year (none of which are positive). It’s more fun than it should be.
The one thing Nick Mamatas can do without fault is create deranged, awful characters that you can’t help but enjoy and feel sorry for.
Colleen too is fun in her own right, acting as straight man in a sea of strange people, some of whom are outright misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, slightly crazy, obsessed, or some combination of all of the above. She acts as a good lens with which to view the event and the murder.
However, she doesn’t act as a good lens to solve the murder, which is a problem. While the cops question the event-goers—most of whom don’t care that Panossian is dead because he was a right prick when alive—Colleen takes it upon herself to help out. She does this by being nosey and all around annoying. The police tell her over and over to stop what she’s doing, and she rationalizes that as, “they want me to keep helping!”
Her attitude, and thus the bulk of the novel, drove me nuts. Colleen turned from a good reader stand-in to someone that was just obnoxious, which isn’t what you want out of a reader stand-in.
Halfway into the book, I was starting to grow a bit bored of the dynamic. Panossian makes a mental ass of himself, and Colleen upsets everyone around her by asking questions no one really wants to dwell on. Thankfully, there’s a nice little twist just when it’s all becoming unbearable.
But this is a who-done-it story, so we have to talk about the ending. I…didn’t like it.
The big problem is that there are too many characters, and once we’re getting a tally of all of the possible suspects, I realized I couldn’t remember who half of them where. When every character but one or two is unhinged, they all start to blur together. It really became a problem when a certain someone was looking like the prime suspect and I honestly couldn’t recall a detail on him.
The little problem is the whole thing wraps up a bit too cleanly. For a novel that’s really into Lovecraft (every chapter is named after one of his short stories, and there are enough facts about Lovecraft that this could be used as a source for a literary paper on the man), it has little to do with his stories as a whole. There’s nothing cosmic or scary, and the end answer was pretty unfulfilling.
I’m not sure if it would have been cliché if the end were some spooky, Azathoth-monster-dwelling-in-the-unknown affair, but it at least would have fit the framework.
And as strange of a complaint as this is, I kind of take umbrage with the way the book views these nerdy con goers. Yeah they’re all terrible people who you’d go well out of your way to avoid at a Comic Con, but I can at least empathize with some of their core fears and obsessions. I worry about not going anywhere with my creative endeavors, and I certainly obsess over nerdy subculture more than I probably should.
I Am Providence doesn’t always feel like it’s on their side though, laughing with them. No, often I feel like the novel is laughing at them. It makes sense within Panossian’s chapters since his are in first person and he’s a bit of a dick, but Colleen is handled from the third-person past perspective. Some of the nastier observations don’t feel like they come from her subjective voice but the author’s omniscient one.
I suppose of all the who-done-it books I’ve read, I Am Providence is the one I’ve liked the most. The setting, the tone, and the writing are all really good and enjoyable, and most of the characters are fun to observe from afar. There really is a lot to like. But damn, I disliked some of Colleen’s actions, and I wasn’t thrilled by the ending.
I suppose if you really like this kind of story, then this is a good example of it and one you’ll enjoy. If you’re curious, I’d say read the excerpts on Amazon. The first chapter is a good indication of what you’re getting into.
If you aren’t a fan of who-done-its, then this one isn’t likely going to change your mind on the genre.
Or flip a coin or something. I dunno. What do you want from me?