Welcome to Night Vale . . . a friendly desert community somewhere in the American Southwest, where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are parts of everyday life.
Nilanjana Sikdar is an outsider to the town of Night Vale. Working for Carlos, the town’s top scientist, she relies on fact and logic as her guiding principles. But all of that is put into question when Carlos gives her a special assignment investigating a mysterious rumbling in the desert wasteland outside of town. This investigation leads her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and to Darryl, one of its most committed members. Caught between her beliefs in the ultimate power of science and her growing attraction to Darryl, she begins to suspect the Congregation is planning a ritual that could threaten the lives of everyone in town. Nilanjana and Darryl must search for common ground between their very different world views as they are faced with the Congregation’s darkest and most terrible secret.
It Devours!? Oh yeah, I’ve read that book. It’s the second novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor based on their popular serial fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale. The book was released on October 17, 2017, and as a big fan of the podcast I had been eagerly awaiting it for a while. When the first novel came out — simply titled Welcome to Night Vale — I was cautiously excited. While I loved the audio show, its translation to the novel format was untested. The first book had a few hiccups, but I think it turned out quite well. With the debut book out of the way, proving their narrative world had legs in the medium, my expectations of a second book to do a little more with the setting grew.
For the first novel, a lot of the focus was on the town itself, seen through the perspective of two of its residents. The mystery took us to various points of interest throughout Night Vale, giving us a sort of narrative tour that allowed an on-the-ground look at the oddities of the setting, as well as what it’s really like for the more everyday person living there. While a great approach, it’s not something I think they could have done a second time. Fortunately, It Devours! succeeded in giving us something more by giving centre stage to more specific groups: the scientists, the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, and to a lesser extent Night Vale city government. The central otherworldly threat that looms over the town is the concern of all these parties, for different reasons, bringing about a unique and appropriately surreal clash of ideologies. I really liked this change of approach. As much as I do like the first novel, as a fan of the series I’ve heard countless episodes about Night Vale and its people — it is a “community radio” show after all — so while the perspective was still novel, a lot of it felt familiar.
I really liked this novel’s protagonist Nilanjana, who gave a unique perspective on various levels. For one, she’s a scientist, a profession in Night Vale that is nebulous and quirky, in the way that scientists are in cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies. I liked the more peeled-back look at what these scientists actually do, especially giving us the internal thoughts of one, better fleshing out how they see the world. Nilanjana was very practical, confronting problems with logic and reason befitting her vocation, while also at times betraying her true feelings between the lines. She’s someone I quickly felt I understood and sympathized with as a human being. She’s also an outsider. Though she’d been living in Night Vale for years at the start of the novel, she had never felt like she was truly accepted or belonged. The ways of the town were just as strange to her as any reader might find them, and this was something she often had to confront or come to terms with.
The more tangential references to the surreal or esoteric aspects of life in Night Vale were more limited in this novel, a problem I brought up in my review of the first book. Like I said before, these moments work wonderfully on the podcast, but do not so much in a novel. They’re still present in all their weird majesty in this book, but this time around they felt more in service to the story taking place, rather than an amusing idea one of the author’s had that just had to be included. There was still the odd passage that I found over-indulgent, however, which happened enough to make me feel they still haven’t quite struck a perfect balance.
As a story that pitted science and religion against one another it did an admirably fair job. While it was hard for me not to side with Nilanjana’s more reasoned approach to their crazy world, her love interest Darryl was not simply a misguided fool enthralled by a belief system. He highlighted many of the positives that come from religious communities and the way they can bring people together constructively and harbour good feelings in oneself and good will toward others. The negatives of each side were exemplified as well, which demonstrated the different but equally disastrous consequences of each taken too far. It did well to present the issue without a clear answer, not trying to shake anyone from their side, but present it as a complex issue related to human nature.
The writing style was compelling and the characterization strong. Sitting down a reading through larger chunks at a time was a joy for me to take part in. For these reasons it was particularly regrettable that I had one major problem with the plot of this book. It relates directly to mystery of the story, so I won’t go into specifics, but I guessed the twist before I even knew it was a twist. The storyline did enough to occasionally have me second-guess myself, but ultimately events came to what I had already figured out and I was not in the least bit surprised. It was such a notable thing to me that it actually felt dissonant that the thought, from what I recall, did not seriously occurred to any of the characters early on. Plenty of legwork was done by the authors to steer the reader in different directions concerning the issue with in-universe reasoning that did work in its own way. Those directions did have their own mysteries and problems to solve too, the story has plenty else to stand on, but this one core detail was simply too obvious to me.
The only thing that makes me hesitate about this criticism is I’m not sure if it was something more unique to my experience with the book, or something others would catch too. Regardless, the journey these characters undertake is one I still thoroughly enjoyed. The world of Night Vale is disturbing, hilarious, and bloody weird in a way I am drawn to, and this book was no exception to that. Despite all its surreal horror it still managed to be insightful, reflective, and poignant too, which made its down-to-earth human moments some of the ones that stood out the most. It had its imperfections, but whether fan or newcomer, It Devours! is definitely worth checking out.