Richard Matheson, Other Kingdoms, ISBN 9780765327680, Tom Doherty Associates, March 2011.
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
The latest fantasy from the author of I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s Other Kingdoms fails to live up to the potential of its premise. The narrator, elderly hack writer Alex Black, describes his younger self, naïve doughboy Alex White, confronting World War I, family troubles, small-town insularity, and the perils of the otherworld, and emerging sadder, wiser, and with plenty of material for his interminable horror series. Matheson fully exploits the comedy inherent in Alex Black’s uninspired, pseudo-Gothic writing and Alex White’s teenage misjudgments and sex life. Trench warfare is effectively portrayed; the war does not dominate the novel, which makes the scenes it affects surprisingly powerful.
Other Kingdoms’ main problem is what does dominate the novel. Amidst a rich stew of plot elements, Matheson chooses to focus on a love triangle that wallows in cliché and never moves beyond the obvious. Arriving in the English village described to him by a dead comrade, Alex must choose between Magda, an outcast whose son died in the war, and Ruthana, a fairy from the mysterious Middle Kingdom. Magda is older, sexual, Wiccan, red-haired, and predatory; Ruthana is tiny, beautiful, and described as pure and virginal even when she sleeps with Alex. It’s no surprise which becomes the love of Alex’s life and which meets with an appropriately grotesque fate.
Despite its unappealing, predictable plotline, Other Kingdoms moves briskly, helped by the humor of Alex Black, accustomed to penning melodramatic horror stories, recounting an epic romance. Unfortunately, Black/White isn’t a very good writer, so the laughs are counterbalanced by some mind-numbing prose, and the otherwise excellent pacing occasionally breaks down to allow for infodumps. The risk Matheson takes by writing in this persona doesn’t fully pay off, but it is one of the more original aspects of the novel.
The best bits of Other Kingdoms are when the divergent worlds and genres it encompasses interact: when Alex Black begins to emerge in Alex White, when family turmoil makes war an escape, when fairies and humans cross over to each other’s kingdoms and pay the price. The worst take place when the single weakest element—Alex’s love life— takes over. Unfortunately, that’s the main focus of this disappointing novel.