Two denizens of New York City, both with a mysterious amnesia, turn out to be connected to each other and to interdimensional intrigue with the fantasy realm of Aandor in Edward Lazellari’s debut novel Awakenings. Given that the other realms and the greater universe are offscreen and only referred to, what the novel comes out to be is an unusual take on urban fantasy, where the fantastic intrusion is from a fantasy realm rather than from, say, Faerie.
The novel’s point of view primarily alternates between the two amnesiac characters. Cal MacDonell is a model NYPD cop with a wife and a young daughter. Straitlaced, straight-up family man who does his job and holds to his word. He’s the archetype of the stalwart, respectable police officer who takes “to protect and serve” seriously. This icon of order, and he does feel like an archetype, might even take that to extremes. As we learn more about him and his past, the revelations slot in perfectly with the character as he currently exists.
By comparison, Seth is his polar opposite in nearly every respect. He’s a photographer of somewhat questionable material and definitely of questionable morals. He is distrusted and distrusts everyone and everywhere, and scavenges and scrapes a living. Responsibility is a thing to be shirked; honor and loyalty are words for other people. He, too, is an archetype, and a clear contrast to Cal. It is these two characters, lost in time and space from Aandor, whose discovery by forces both friendly and hostile to them drives the plot of the novel. Although we do not get a point of view from Lalani, it is she who is the plot driver in finding the two men and reintroducing them to the memories and background that they have lost, and serves as the connective tissue to keep the main characters harnessed together.
We do get points of view from a couple of other characters, however, including the main antagonist of the novel, Dorn. It is through Dorn that we get an antagonist-side perspective of the conflict; the stakes he is fighting for are rendered clear, and while his methods are drawn in a strongly negative light, the reasons why he is doing what he is doing are at all times clear. It also provides a perspective on someone new to Earth from Aandor that, even with the trappings of power and wealth, there is a culture, perception, and value clash between the medieval fantasy realm of Aandor and its denizens, and that of our Earth.
Aside from all of these character beats and development, the knowledge starts laying down a fair amount of worldbuilding about Aandor and the world that Cal and Seth come from, as well as hints for what the overarching structure of that multiverse might be like. We get a taste of the greater world that is outside Earth, even as the action firmly remains on Earth, primarily in the New York City metropolitan area. There is a good sense of place and development with an area that I personally know from growing up there. The intersection of New York and the fantastic is a long and storied tradition in fantasy fiction, and Awakenings does not disappoint on that front. New York may not be the center of the multiverse, but it is a way stop all the same.
On the subject of the multiverse, Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes of Amber is the clear model and inspiration for the novel. A person living on Earth, with memory problems, who discovers that they are part of a greater universe, and connected to a more fantastic and fantasy realm? And that agents and elements of that fantasy realm exist and impinge on Earth, so that even if one wanted to, trying to ignore that realm is not only impossible, but a recipe for death? The author has his own spins on this formula of course. Aandor is not the center of a multiverse. We have multiple people from the fantasy realm on Earth. And other things are given new spins by the author, too. In any event, as an early and abiding fan of Zelazny’s work, I do enjoy when an author explores that sometimes under-utilized fantasy space.
Awakenings’ major fault, in my eyes, though, is the lack of an off-ramp for one-and done readers. I did enjoy Awakenings very much, found the setup intriguing and the worldbuilding interesting. However, the story doesn’t come to a conclusion quite so much as it stops, presumably a third of the way through (the series is projected to be a trilogy). This lack of a definite conclusion in this volume for readers who just want a single story is a weakness of the writing that I hope will be rectified by the conclusion of the trilogy. Too, the switching point of views does make the novel feel different than most contemporary urban fantasy which seems to rely on a single point of view, often in the first person. The multiple points of views and switching does make it feel more like a wide-scale epic fantasy in terms of where and how it’s setting up its characters. It’s possible that this POV technique, at least in this first volume, might turn off readers, especially the one and done variety. I admit to being invested enough to continue reading the series and seeing where the author goes with the concept and characters. The second volume, The Lost Prince, is out at the time of the writing of this review, with the third novel hopefully in progress.