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Roam if you want to

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'The Kings and Queens of Roam' Wallace at his finest

Placing elements of the magical or mystical into a realistic world setting doesn't always work. Sometimes, it feels forced as if someone is trying to tell two separate stories simultaneously, with the disparate elements failing to synchronize.

But when magical realism works, it really works.


Daniel Wallace is an author who makes it work. The author is perhaps best known for his novel 'Big Fish,' which became a movie directed by Tim Burton and starring Ewan McGregor. In his latest, 'The Kings and Queens of Roam,' Wallace once again spins a tale that balances reality with a strong undercurrent of mysticism.

The town of Roam is dying a slow death. Once the hub of American silk production, Roam has become the sort of place from which most people are forever trying to escape. Helen and Rachel McCallister granddaughters of Roam's domineering (and deceased) patriarch Elijah McCallister live alone in the decaying remains of Elijah's palatial estate.

Helen is the elder sister; bitter, manipulative and notoriously ugly. Younger sister Rachel is tender, trusting, beautifuland almost completely blind. Filled with resentment after the too-soon death of their parents placed the responsibility of Rachel's caretaking on her shoulders, Helen fills Rachel's head with fabricated tales of the darkness and dangers of the world, even going so far as to convince Rachel that she is the ugly one, while Helen is fair to look upon.

Helen believes that Rachel can't possibly survive on her own, but when confronted with that possibility, Rachel makes a shocking choice that shakes both of their worlds to their very bedrock.

Of course, as with any of Wallace's work, there's just as much to be seen along the periphery as there is in the story's heart. There's the tale of Elijah McCallister and his years-long love/hate relationship with Ming Kai, the Chinese man whom Elijah captured and enslaved in order to obtain the secret of silk. There's Digby, the not-quite-midget proprietor of Roam's one and only watering hole who just happens to also be able to see (and talk to) ghosts. There are stories of mysterious hidden valleys, medical quackery powered by honest-to-goodness magic healing waters and a lumberjack heartbroken over the loss of a three-legged dog.

'The Kings and Queens of Roam' spins all of these tales together into a fine tapestry, woven tight and smooth with bursts of color scattered throughout. Wallace's Southern gothic charm blends seamlessly with a skewed mysticism. There's a richness of characterization that borders on the hypnotic. Combine that with the meticulous magic of the settings and you've got something that is absolutely captivating.

There's a wonderfully casual craftsmanship to Wallace's work here so many of the sentences are exquisite, but it never feels like he's trying too hard. And the emotions evoked are significant the people of Roam feel very true. It is as if he has captured the best of 'magical' and 'realism' and brought them together to show us the beauty inherent to magical realism.

'The Kings and Queens of Roam' is an outstanding work from an exceptional artist. Any fans of Wallace's previous work will be thrilled, while first-time readers are in for a treat that they simply cannot possibly be prepared for.

Rome wasn't built in a day, but 'The Kings and Queens of Roam' might just be read in one.



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