Strange Exit is Parker Peevyhouse’s second novel. In her first novel, Echo Room, she explores the depths, twists, and turns of the human mind in a sci-fi escape room setting. In this story, she continues along that same vein against the backdrop of a virtual reality machine aboard a failing spaceship.
The story opens with a 17-year-old Lake walking the streets of a post- Nuclear Winter San Francisco in search of survivors to save. The roads are mostly empty. Her encounters with others are few and far between, but she doesn’t give up. No matter how things appear, she knows there are more survivors and that it’s up to her to rescue them. She tries her luck at what’s left of the San Francisco Zoo. There are no animals left, but she comes across a boy named Taren and his dog in the Tiger House.
Taren wishes to be left alone, but Lake doesn’t budge. She’s careful with her words and her actions, so she doesn’t scare him off. She needs him to follow her. The why is not clear at first. We only know that she has to temper her zeal to make him follow her so that he can live. The scene is tense, and I felt a sigh of relief when Taren follows Lake through a door she made in a nearby rock. That door is the portal to the rabbit hole of this story.
In the next scene, Lake awakes inside of a stasis pod with wires and probes hooked up to her body. We learn that the post-apocalyptic hellscape that Lake just went through was part of a virtual reality simulation or “sim.” The sim is aboard a spaceship and was designed to calm and prepare passengers for space travel and arrival to a new world. But something went wrong. The ship is failing, food and water are scarce, and the ship is populated with teens with no adults who can fix the ship or make major decisions.
This is the reality Taren wakes up to. One moment he is barely surviving in the Tiger House at the Zoo. In the next, he wakes up in a stasis pod, weak and hungry, then thrown in jail for “his own good” by other teens afraid he’ll re-enter the sim.
When Lake finds Taren, she explains to him that the Earth they know is long-gone. They’ve been stuck in a simulation for decades, while everything around them falls apart. The only way to save the vessel and find a way home is to wake everyone from the sim. However, the other teens on the ship are more concerned about immediate survival than long term plans. Lake secretly goes back into the sim to wake people up, one by one. The process is slow because the people in the sim don’t know they’re in a sim and would be reluctant to leave. Like she did with Taren, Lake has to ease people into the idea of living, into the idea that there is something more than a torn and bleeding San Francisco. It takes time, and that is running out as the food and water situation gets worse, and the ship is on its last legs.
Taren agrees to help her, and the two embark on a mission to save as many people as they can. With help, Lake figures she can work twice as fast, but Taren wants to accomplish more than that. Moving from a desperate situation to a worse one drives Taren to find shortcuts and quick fixes to wake up as many people as possible as soon as possible. This seems positive at first, but things quickly take a darker turn as Taren’s desperation to survive grows. They also face hostilities from the sleepers they’re trying to save who think the two mean them harm. Worse, they have to deal with this while battling their own inner demons, which the “sim” has sweet and terrifying ways of manifesting.
Strange Exit is a flowing read that thrums with tension. Peevyhouse excels weaving suspense and clues through this fast-paced tale. The multi-layered concept is rich with opportunities to explore this seemingly singular story from many angles making it a story within a story within a story. And the craft keeps you on the edge of your seat as you know the other shoe will drop- you just don’t know if it will be a ballet slipper or a steel-toe boot.
Peevyhouse excels at moving the story forward while keeping juggling multiple twists and mysteries. Her sharp and dynamic use of active setting makes the book almost seem like a movie. Her descriptions make the story-world come alive and there were times I felt I was the one in the virtual reality. There was a sense that the fast and winding journey of this story would lead to a land of revelation and denouement. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Peevyhouse spent pages creating pay-offs that didn’t happen. After weaving such an intricate tale, the ending falls flat and leaves many questions unanswered including questions that were brought up in the last quarter of the book.
Strange Exit is full of mysteries but two of the most significant relationships/mysteries get only a few pages of resolution and there was one major character who disappears completely with no explanation at all. I have a feeling of why that character disappeared but that’s all it ever is. I really wish there was more toward the end of the story. But even with a rushed ending the writing is engaging and perfect for those who like The Matrix, The Hunger Games, and The 100 mixed into something new.
Genine Tyson is an African-American writer who traveled East to West to settle in California for the last several years. Since obtaining her creative writing degree, she has done nothing with it except get a job and write on weekends, but things changed. Embracing her love of monsters, magic, and machines, she is working on two novels at once -because writing one isn’t hard enough – apparently. To connect, find Genine on Twitter @geninet or on her blog.