The Great American Alternate Reality Road Trip: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

In the Fall of 2015 at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY, I saw Max Gladstone pick up a silver water pitcher and earnestly answer an audience member of his reading, “So, manifolds. Let’s talk about them.” He then went on to explain this physics term, using the water pitcher as straightforwardly as possible. And the entire room was rapt. You see, Max had just read from a new novel he was working on, a story of America and road trips and magic at the corner of your eye. It was also about friends so close they were family, and alternate realities, and fucking up so badly, your soul ached like a broken bone. At the time, he said he was still a little while off from finishing it, but he promised it would be out someday.

Fast forward to spring 2022 and that story I first heard at a convention center in upstate NY is now Last Exit, the brilliant new novel from Max Gladstone.

Zelda and her friends used to have a mission: find a world better than the one they knew. Having discovered a way to push themselves into alternate realities—Americas that could’ve been—the five of them (Zelda, Sal, Ramón, Ish, and Sarah) traversed world after world, spending their college days in hot pursuit of a world with no war, no fear, no violence. And having found none, they aimed for the source of all worlds, the Crossroads; if they could get there, they could change it all. They tried. They failed. And Zelda lost more than her girlfriend, Sal; she lost her friends, too, each of them leaving her in the wake of their great loss. For the last ten years, Zelda hasn’t stopped trying to fix the world and keep the Rot, the shadows between alts, from infecting this one. But things are spinning out of control and Sal, lost to the Rot at the end of all the worlds, is coming back for Zelda—and she’ll destroy everything in her path to do so. It’s time to finish what they started. And with Sal’s baby cousin June onboard, Zelda will bring all of them back for one last ride across America.

This book is a literal ride, friends. It is so quintessentially Max Gladstone, so specific and driven and lush and horrifying, it feels, at times, like America personified. Its influences feel vast and myriad, from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’s graphic novel series DIE, all while Jack Kerouac’s ghost tries to hijack the radio and play his favorite EDM song. Equal parts psychedelic deep-dive into the subconscious of country and kin, as Gladstone gives ample time to both characters and landscape as well as rip-roaring, adrenaline-laced Mad Max-ian chase scenes across wastelands, cyber-castles, bathed in the light of a cracked, leaking night sky. Gladstone is always at his best when he’s balancing the rush of an action sequence with the thrill of a character making a breakthrough, for good or for ill, and in Last Exit, he’s never been better at combining the two to create something wholly unique.

Gladstone loves a good ensemble cast. From pairings of powerful people bouncing off of one another throughout the Craft series, to a gathering of allies among the future stars of Empress of Forever, Gladstone is at his best when he has a myriad of lenses through which to experience the narrative. In Last Exit, his cast of characters has never been stronger, more interesting, or more fucked up than Zelda and her crew coming back together. Burned from failure, exhausted from trying to fit in or fight the inevitable, scarred on the surface and in their hearts, after more than a decade of running from their past, Gladstone imbues each of these road warriors with contradictions, complications, and shades of complexity. No one is right, no one is wrong, no one is perfect, and scene after scene, you can feel the weight of their history together, their rough and often caustic or fragile hopes sparking and snapping at one another like vipers dancing. Gladstone crafts a story where you hope our protagonists succeed, yes, but that he makes the very real story of “Can these people ever claw their way back to that place of safety and joy they once shared?” threaded throughout is masterful. And no, I won’t tell you what happens to them. But that Zelda, June, Ish, Sarah, and Ramón are battling for their souls as well as the soul of America is compelling as hell. And when you factor in Sal, lost at the crossroads of the world and deep inside the heart of Rot, you’ve got an explosive cast.

Max Gladstone truly is one of my favorite writers, and Last Exit is another shining example of why he’ll always be at the top of my recommendation list. Brilliant, complex, flawed characters in a story that celebrates love, diversity, friendship, respect, and justice for all. Hierarchies and myths of our modern age interrogated, broken down, and laid bare for all to make up their minds about. And mostly that the struggle towards these ideals and our myths cracked open are often difficult, made more difficult by forces of capitalism, hate, and injustice that dominate our lives, news cycles, and more. A hopeful message weighed down with truth: these things are worth pursuing, but it won’t be easy. But as demonstrated in Last Exit, every mile of road eaten, every step forward, is worth it. And if you can’t do it alone, then let your friends help you. A novel of hope glimmering in the dark heart of the world we’re fighting to save, Gladstone reminds us: it’s dangerous to go alone. That with those we love holding us up, flaws and all, we can make it to the crossroads. And together, we can change our world for the better.

Last Exit is published by Tor Books.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.

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