Last Exit is the latest novel from Max Gladstone, and I am here to tell you that it is a doozy. It was one of the strangest reading experiences of my life, which sounds like a knock against it but truly isn’t.
Last Exit is the story of what happens after the youthful golden heroes fail. Zelda, Ish, Ramon, Sarah and Sal spent their youth traveling alternate universes and exploiting the magical powers of potential. They found the “rot,” an otherworldly force seeking to corrupt and devour universes. And being young golden heroes, they sought a way to stop the rot, find a perfect universe, and live happily ever after. They failed. Sal fell to the rot. The book will remind you of this a lot. Like, a lot.
Last Exit picks up ten years later with Zelda trying to get the team back together for one last job. Except instead of tropey and heroic, they are all broken in their own way, and consistently haunted by the shadows of their previous failures. Last Exit will not let you forget that they failed, it was bad, and that Rot-Sal is coming back now to destroy the main universe and they have to deal with it because they messed it all up in the first place. However amidst our broken adults is June, Sal’s 16 year old cousin who understands that our world is messed up but still contains optimism that it can be fixed. Gladstone doesn’t shy away from how messed up our world is, and the search for a better world is a strong undercurrent to the plot.
So yes, it sounds like I’m griping about this book, but I’m also here to say that this is a very good book. It’s just absolutely not for me, mostly in terms of the writing style. Gladstone gives incredibly descriptive, emotional and deep writing for every scene. The despair, regret and guilt of each character gets seared into your bones. It is certifiably good writing but that richly described darkness is also a huge bummer. And a bummer that I personally was not in a great place to deal with, what with the plague and all. I am the person who will watch three hour-long episodes of a TV show but not a three-hour movie, and Last Exit is a three-hour movie. And yet, as much as I tried to start skimming to move forward, I consistently found myself getting drawn back in. This book refused to let me skim, and I think that speaks to the quality of the writing and the worlds that Gladstone built.
The promotional material for this book often compared it to The Road and American Gods but as I was reading it I realized that it really truly reminded me of the Dark Tower by Stephen King. They are both the journeys of broken people through vaguely apocalyptic worlds haunted by real and metaphorical horrors. The “alts” were my favorite part of this book, I love a good broken world and Last Exit is full of them. I will eat up a glossary or a wiki if it tells me what happened in a world to get it as messed up as it is. Particularly if it’s meant to be a potential future of our world, because I clearly haven’t seen our world get messed up enough in real life. Last Exit was full of juicy morsels like this, I definitely could have gone for more but I pretty much always could go for more when it comes to apocalypse lore.
Another point in Last Exit’s favor is its excellent diversity. There are several LGBT+ characters and BIPOC characters and they are not just there as throwaway details. These people’s identities inform their history and actions in a way that feels very genuine.
Last Exit also features an interesting “magic” system that harnesses the power of math, potential, and the unknown. Potential energy aka Spin is gained by experiencing and taking in the unknown and gathering that uncertainty and unleashing it in other areas. Spin can be used to travel alts, manipulate odds, and a few other very interesting ways that I won’t spoil here.
Last Exit comes out March 8, 2022 and I would highly recommend it for any fans of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman or anybody looking for a dark modern fantasy. Yes it drove me crazy at times, but it also would not let me walk away from it.