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The Nightmarchers by J. Lincoln Fenn2.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe Nightmarchers is a textbook example of the kind of ambitious story whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. Author J. Lincoln Fenn has terrific ideas to burn in her third novel, but the plot eventually gets swamped by an excess of complications, revelations that don’t entirely answer key questions, and a frustrating climactic twist that will probably have most readers WTFing and throwing up their hands.

We open with a prologue setting up the backstory. In the 1930s, Irene Greer traveled to the remote (and fictitious) Hawai’ian island of Kapu, paid for by her sister Lydia, to research local flora and fauna, and also to recover from feelings of grief and survivor guilt following the deaths of her husband and daughter. We see, through her letters home, that Irene’s mental state begins to decline. She befriends a little girl named Agnes, the ward of a minister running a religious sect on the island called The Church of the Eternal Light. She believes she sees the Nightmarchers, ghosts of dead warriors from Hawai’ian folklore who march together and who are rumored to pull the unwary into their ranks if you’re so unfortunate as to be noticed observing them. And she believes she sees the ghosts of her husband and daughter among them, beckoning to her. Then Irene’s letters mysteriously stop.

Fast forward to the present day, and we meet Julia Greer. Julia has, in that all-too-familiar “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” way, gotten herself married to and then divorced from a sociopathic rich asshole, who has won full custody of their beloved daughter Evie and left Julia, once a successful investigative journalist, completely powerless and destitute. A deeply frustrating recurring motif throughout the book is the way Julia’s ex has so completely taken up residence in her head that there’s literally not a single action Julia takes, even frivolous ones, where she doesn’t hear his judgmental, condescending voice. I suppose it’s a realistic portrayal of the psychic damage that a toxic relationship can do. But by the end, I went from hating the guy (which is the idea) to just feeling bored and tired of hearing about. I suppose it’s no wonder that people going through nasty breakups so often hear their friends unsympathetically telling them to get over the son of a bitch already!

Julia is contacted by Lydia, her great-aunt, and offered all the money she needs to climb out of poverty and fight her ex if she is willing to travel to Kapu to recover Irene’s remains, as well as samples of the plants Irene was researching. Irene says she believes The Church of the Eternal Light has never been entirely truthful about what really became of Irene. Mostly though, this is a cover to get the plant samples, which possess properties that Lydia values scientifically. Kapu is mostly closed off from the outside world, but the Church runs a tiny and insanely expensive health resort for the 1%, and it’s rumored that people have gone to the island with diseases as serious as stage four cancer and returned to full recovery.

Once we’re on the island, imagine a story that’s a little bit Annihilation, a little bit The Island of Dr. Moreau, and a little bit Handmaid’s Tale. Sounds like it couldn’t miss, and it has a number of effective moments, plus the deep jungle is a horrendously oppressive and strange place, with unique mutations of geckos and insects and bugs (so many bugs) and already-freaky plants like the corpse flower. The Church is predictably cultish, with a male Reverend and a bunch of smock-wearing women who never speak or make eye contact. For an investigative journalist, Julia is remarkably unobservant. It never occurs to her that there’s more going on with obnoxious fellow tourist Noah, though it’s obvious to us, and she rather foolishly goes haring off into the deepest, completely off-limits parts of the jungle without adequate preparation for her own safety.

There’s a theme that emerges, about power and class and the haves vs. have-nots and eugenic control over the masses that gives The Nightmarchers a sinister thematic timeliness. And there is that amazing, tactile tropical atmosphere that immerses you so effectively. But there are also, as the book barrels towards what you assume will be a big finish, an excess of plot details, too many dream sequences, way too many moments where you go “hang on, how did that happen?” A subplot about “competitors,” punctuated by occasional excerpts from chat logs, just doesn’t do a thing for the story. There are characters I was never quite sure were working for Aunt Lydia, against her, or playing both sides, nor is it ever clear who the “other side” is. And while I often really like open endings, there’s a trick to writing satisfying ones, and this one simply was not. Trying too much but achieving too little, The Nightmarchers ultimately marches itself right of a cliff into the sea.