A Black and Endless Sky is a recently published horror novel by Matthew Lyons. In it, Jonah Talbot’s life has fallen apart. After 12 years of marriage, the love between him and his wife has simply faded away, and the two have finalized their divorce. Jonah is left with no choice but to leave California and move back home to Albuquerque, accompanied on his drive home by his sister Nell. The two of them used to be inseparable but became estranged after he suddenly left town and got married all those years ago. Now, they hope maybe they can start mending their relationship on this road trip home. However, the open road has more in store for them than they can fathom, as a bizarre incident at an abandoned construction site in the Nevada desert results in Nell’s body playing host to an ancient, otherworldly presence.
About a year and a half ago, I read and reviewed an ARC of Lyons’s previous book The Night Will Find Us, which I liked a decent amount, so when I was approached again about reviewing an ARC of his next novel I was happy to accept. Unfortunately, my schedule has made it harder for me to finish reading books in a more timely manner, so I wasn’t able to get it finished closer to the release date like I wanted, but I’m happy to be putting my thoughts out about it regardless.
Unfortunately, this novel didn’t work for me as much as the author’s previous book did, and I feel like a lot of that had to do with the two main characters. We spend a lot of time in the minds of Jonah and Nell Talbot, and by the end through all of their perseverance, blood, sweat, and tears they definitely did grow on me, but it was not smooth sailing getting me there. For Jonah’s part, he was more benignly uninteresting at the start, his upturned life consuming his personal state. Nell, however, expresses a lot of anger at her brother for leaving the take-no-shit, bar-fighting ways of their 20s behind and becoming a more peaceful person, claiming that nobody can change and instigating conflict when she has no reason to.
I have no problem with characters having rough edges or violent tendencies, but Nell just came across like an asshole to me (pardon the profanity). I get that it’s really supposed to be an expression of how much she missed having Jonah around, but having her advocate so strongly for being a petty thug that she actively starts problems with other people, just so Jonah will be forced to fight, made her difficult to like. It’s not even a lifestyle they needed out of necessity or a poor lot in life, nor is there is there much reflection or examination about it, it just helps to decently justify how tough the two of them are.
Fortunately, these sticking points were largely left behind after the story gets going; I only bring it up so pointedly because it’s the foundation of their characterization, so it can’t be completely overlooked. Nevertheless, when the story ventured into the realm of the otherworldly is when it started to get interesting. It made for a fairly interesting dynamic, as I wouldn’t describe them as everyday, but their grittiness is so otherwise down-to-earth that it contrasts well the unnatural forces thrust upon them. Essentially, this is a story of possession, told in a decently unique way as it involves a road trip and the two characters trying flee a pursuing biker gang (the consequence of Nell starting trouble) and eventually a type of exorcist known as a sin eater.
I never found the book all that scary, but it was at its most interesting when exploring its interpretation of what a demon really is and where humanity is situated in the grand scheme, filtered through a cosmic-horror lens thanks to Nell’s unwanted guest giving her visions of beyond the veil. These elements simmer more beneath the surface of the story while the characters more immediately deal with the symptoms of her possession and their pursuers, but a surprisingly unique twist on familiar Judeo-Christian lore is constructed. In this way Anna, the sin eater, became one of the more interesting characters, as my expectations of her were slowly turned on their head and she gradually shifted into someone more sinister and uncompromising.
While the characters did have their notable strengths, overall the book didn’t have an especially interesting story. Again, the demonic lore is more situated in the background, so the plot itself amounts to a group of people beating the crap out of each other several times over a few days, with periods of rest dwelling on the possession in between. It became almost comical, which I don’t feel that was the intent, as many of the characters seem like they should be literally falling apart and only one of them has any supernatural reason for being able to hold themselves together. It’s the type of spectacle that I think would actually work better as a film in the style of Sam Raimi, and it wasn’t without its entertainment value, but as a novel there just wasn’t enough substance.
It felt like something was missing, and I think that mostly had to do with how the demon possessing Nell felt more like a plot device than a dynamic element in the story. While a certain goal it has becomes clear at one point, a lot of the situation was ultimately ambiguous in a way that left me with an unsatisfied feeling of “so what?”. The bikers dog them the whole book too, which is what poses a more consistent physical threat, which I found strange in a horror novel about possession. Considering how things played out, it seems Nell would’ve become possessed regardless, so it felt more like they were inserted to pad things out. Their very pursuit of the Talbots is because of Nell instigating a fight with them too, so this ongoing problem often just reminded me of my frustrations with the earliest sections of the story.
While A Black and Endless Sky does offer some tension, visceral action, and even a few creepy moments, the characters may be difficult for you to get attached to, though I will say that they decently won me over before the end. They’re not especially complex, but they have strong personalities. Besides that, with the cosmic horror elements relegated mostly to background information that doesn’t directly impact the story itself, the narrative doesn’t have much depth to it or much at all to say about the concepts it presents you with. The book is not without its merits, but it was a fairly middling read overall.
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5
I would like to thank Turner Publishing for sending me a digital Advance Reading Copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This has in no way impacted my review.