Review: 'The Blade Between,' By Sam J. MillerSam J. Miller's latest is set in an upstate New York town built on the bones of butchered whales. It's full of broken people, violent ghosts and flying whales, but the real monster is gentrification.
There are violent ghosts, flying whales, and dead people with mouthfuls of saltwater hundreds of miles from the ocean in Sam J. Miller's The Blade Between, but it all makes sense. It all makes sense because the story takes place in Hudson, New York, a place built on the remains of slaughtered whales, where their unused parts were buried underground and the scraps were fed to animals later used to feed people. Hudson is full of angry spirits, but now a different monster is destroying it: gentrification.
Ronan Szepessy is a famous photographer and influencer who promised himself he'd never return to Hudson, where he was born and then grew up as a lonely, bullied gay kid. But now he's back. The drinking, sex, and drugs of New York City were getting out of control — and his father is sick. While his memories are intact, the sleepy town he remembers is gone, replaced by a bustling town full of hipsters and artists where rent has skyrocketed and the streets are lined with antique shops for tourists. Unsure of why he's there and what is pushing him to stay, Ronan reconnects with two friends from high school: Dom, a cop who was his first love, and Attalah, Dom's wife, who hates what's happening to her hometown. The three friends hate gentrifiers, so Attalah and Ronan start plotting ways to change things — including blackmail — and Ronan and Dom rekindle their relationship, but their actions unleash something darker in the process.
The Blade Between is a book about broken people. The creepy atmosphere and ghosts make it horror, but the drug abuse, evictions, cheating, and destroyed lives make it noir. Also, Miller's writing and vivid imagery, especially when describing dreams, make it poetry. The mix of genres, much like the mix of elements, makes no sense, but it works. People are angry and sad. Poverty is rampant. The opioid crisis has destroyed many of Hudson's residents. Failed drugs tests separate kids from their mothers. Corporate interests destroy places locals considered sacred. When those things come together, the flying whales and apparitions, what Ronan calls the town's "supernatural miasma," are no big deal because the darkness and pain underneath them, the carnage of daily life, is astonishingly real and painfully relatable.
Miller pulls readers into a universe where the banality of everyday life in a small town and the extraordinary weirdness of the supernatural collide, but the collision somehow results in a strange balance. On one side there are dying businesses, junkies, closeted gay men looking for sex on apps, and people struggling to get by and deciding they will offer gentrifiers everything they have for money and a chance at a better future. On the other, there are unreliable narrators, a creature Ronan creates on his computer, made up of various photos of attractive men, that comes to life, and the ghost of a young gay man who serves as a sort of guide to Hudson's hidden world.
There is plenty of strangeness and action in The Blade Between, but Miller also finds ways to tackle important subjects within the chaos. Grief and guilt are driving forces for many characters. People know their vices and bad decisions have messed them up, but they're unable — or unwilling — to do anything about it. Homophobia is a recurring theme that helps readers understand why Ronan is the way he is and why he stayed away from Hudson for two decades:
"But I couldn't have stayed. Not as who I was. I'd have had to keep myself in some kind of horrible closet. How I made it out at all, without being the victim of a homophobic crime, is still a mystery to me."
This is a complex novel that never allows one storyline to overpower the others. The fight against gentrification lies at its core like a rotten chunk of whale flesh buried under a crumbling building, but there's enough going on to build a whole town on top of that. For example, Dom and Attalah have an open relationship, but when Dom and Ronan become lovers again, things get complicated. Also, Ronan wants to kick the gentrifiers out, but even so he's tempted to sell his father's property and return to New York.
The Blade Between is more than a dystopian sci-fi thriller with a dash of poetry; it's an explosive narrative about a small town caught between the decaying ghosts of the past, the shattered dreams and mediocre lives of its residents, and the monster of gentrification that threatens to erase it all under shiny new buildings and fancy coffee shops. That Miller manages to discuss all three while also exploring the interstitial spaces between homosexuality, technology, and class privilege and resentment is a testament to his storytelling skills, and a powerful reason to read this haunting tale.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at@Gabino_Iglesias.