by Alex Khlopenko
In the world of trilogies, where the second book is usually a teaser-trailer for the final installment, duologies are a welcome sight. A duology offers a condensed and precise narrative, no mincing any words, not wasting any time, just the good stuff. It’s a risk for any author since the format forbids wastefulness and demands confidence in one’s craft and one’s reader.
As much as horror writers want us to believe in the secluded, isolated, and exhausting terrors of small-town America, those terrors rarely originate there and rarely stay there for long. One of the masterful strokes in Echoed Realm is the fact that the book accepts the existence of the bigger world. Not unlike Twin Peaks: The Return, where we left the titular town to explore the changing world, here three main POVs Miya, Kai, and Mason had to leave the Black Hollow.
There is a pleasant rejection of sentimentality, a sort of rejection of nostalgy, in the shift from little town mystery to bigger world mystery in both, and the sense that you can’t restrict an issue to one location – both take a stab at a sort of intersectional reading of small-town horrors by going outside of actual small towns.
After the events of The Hollow Gods, Miya and Kai embrace their new relationship and roles and go on a “Supernatural”-style tour of the southern part of the USA, until it brings them to Louisiana where a dead woman waits for them.
What appears a murder mystery at the beginning brings Miya and Kai into other planes of reality and takes them hundreds of years back to face the culprits behind their struggle, the people whose insurmountable baggage of violence, trauma, pettiness, and superstition the three main characters have been carrying all this time.
“Miya could be whatever kind of weapon she wanted”
Mason, too, has to look back and unpack what brought him here and what drove him when there was no reason to push forward. This peak “under the hood” of personal motivations, a dissection of desires that possess the characters, would drive a simpler man insane. Mason only gets more obsessed with the truth and more so with the truth about his obsession.
Like a population that has only been fed propaganda and needs time to approach class consciousness, it takes a lot of conscious effort for the main trio to understand that they are not free from the baggage of the previous generations. Kai and Miya have to go to great lengths and beyond what’s real into dreamlike to untangle the strings that have been controlling their every move.
Isn’t that what’s at the core of all speculative fiction – to cross from the realism of our life to the unreal, process it, try to make sense of it, and then imagine a new realism? The Echoed Realm pulls no punches and offers a masterfully crafted supernatural horror that’s not afraid to face the hard truths and imagine a different kind of world.
Miya caught her client’s gaze. “I believe in far worse.”
The mythology and the supernatural elements of the story feel fresh (borrowing creatures, narratives, and myths from Balkan and Slavic canon can achieve that) and create a sense of just barely scratching the surface – there is a lot more from where this came from. It dares the reader to go and read up on Rusalkas and Dreamwalkers, even if the Echoed Realm itself doesn’t go all-in on those same elements.
Just like Miya, we see A. J. Vrana come into her own. Her prose is more confident, bold even. She is not afraid of following some tropes to a T, while completely subverting others as long as it serves her story. It takes courage and confidence in one’s craft to put a separate story within a dream sequence within another story in the middle of the book. This move could’ve destroyed the book and made an unreadable mess in other, less careful, hands.
There is some shakiness to the structure around the middle part, which could be attributed to the editorial choice in commercial supernatural literature but ultimately it does not influence the overall enjoyment of The Echoed Realm.
As others have mentioned on GR, this book makes you want to travel to Canada and go all “Misery” on the author to force her to write another as quickly as possible. And for a good reason – The Echoed Realm leaves an aftertaste of a promise, of something bigger and better, deeper and even bolder than this. Look out for A.J. Vrana in NY Times bestselling lists in the next couple of years.
(Disclaimer: We do not endorse violence against authors)
Our Review for the previous installment: The Hollow Gods