A long novel is a different beast. In its pages, a whole world may be contained; characters arrive and depart, suggesting lives begun long before; a reader can spend days, even weeks, tracking the progress of a plot that winds and dips and twists, building inexorably toward an explosive finish. The first book of The Joshua City Trilogy, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, clocks in at an impressive seven hundred twenty-four pages, beautifully designed by Dark House Press, under Curbside Splendor Publishing. The novel, by Okla Elliot and Raul Clement, is a remarkably engaging and wholly satisfying addition to recent books that straddle the line between literary and genre fiction. The authors display their extensive and impressive world building skills, as well as a deft ability to plot a long story with multiple threads. In a metafictional turn, the book is presented—in an introduction and prologue—as a translation: originally “written” by Aleksandr Tuvim as a history of Joshua City, while the renowned poet is imprisoned for conspiracy against the government. Footnotes throughout the text from “translators” Elliot and Clement are judiciously used, though the narrative necessity of such an extensive backstory for the book’s origins remains, at this early point in the trilogy, mysterious.
The novel opens in Joshua City, one of the seven city-states still standing in the After-Time. Following “The Great Calamity,” an unsteady peace known as the Baikal Treaty has been brokered. But now Joshua City’s water has been deliberately poisoned, leading to a flesh-rotting illness known as “nekrosis.” Suspicion of water poisoning, in defiance of the Treaty, has created an unsteady political environment. In a desperate effort to regain control, the city’s leader, Mayor Adams—a villainous figure whose greed and disinterest in the true state of his people reads as an indictment of multiple current world leaders—blames the spread of “nekrosis” on an outside faction and declares war.
Into this tumultuous time the book introduces Nikolas Kovalski, a medical student interested in finding a cure for “nekrosis.” His roommate, Adrian Talbot, is a medical student as well, and his dark history includes his mother’s suicide and the epilepsy that strikes him without warning. Nikolas grows more and more disenchanted with the city’s treatment of its people, embodied by Mayor Adams and his dictatorial tactics. Adrian, meanwhile, believes he can do the most good while working inside Joshua City’s system. The novel, then, is a classic tale of paths diverging, and soon enough Nikolas has become the leader of “The Underground,” a resistance group comprised mostly of young men and women who work to mobilize the citizens of Joshua City, while at the same time, Adrian journeys to a desert hospital outside the city’s limits.
As the book expands, several more plots and characters are introduced—including a movie producer from the rich world of Silverville and a distraught widower whose house extends nearly impossibly over the Baikal Sea. One of the strongest subplots focuses on Nikolas’ brother, Marcik, through his early days as a Baikal Guard for Joshua City to his eventual capture and imprisonment. In setting scenes among a military regiment, the authors are able to explore the rough and often lawless lands outside of Joshua City. Beyond the cafes and underground bunkers, Marcik’s world feels particularly alive: the fat moon overhead, the insects (“drunk fat flies and long-nosed bloodsuckers”), the mountains in the distance, and the narrow passes created by rivers. Marcik’s growth and development from a naïve guardsman to leader takes an unexpected turn that cleverly recasts the novel’s opening prologue featuring “author” Aleksandr Tuvim.
Marcik is almost wholly a man of action; as a guardsman and prisoner, he leads a sensory existence, and here Elliot and Clement excel. The book is most uneven, in contrast, when character and plot are framed as vessels for ideas—for example, early in the novel when the narrative pauses for Adrian to lament, “How sad that it takes a war to obtain funding for a hospital.” A point is being made here, bluntly. But several pages later, the book more cleverly and effectively shows this very idea in action, during Adrian’s time as a volunteer at the desert hospital. Here, in scenes of illness and surgery that are vividly described, the consideration moves beyond a shallow told statement to a deepened understanding of true economic disparity and the crude morality and hierarchy of this particular world during this particular war.
Of the book’s central characters, the largest dissonance exists between how the book wishes to present Nikolas and how he appears on the page. His sections are often the least engaging; the description of him “lazily pondering the rights of humans and the duties of the revolutionary” is not uncommon or unusual. This is only troublesome because the prologue of the book insists that Nikolas is a central figure in the revolutionary history of Joshua City—engaging, dynamic, and attractive to the populous eager for change. One fears that Adrian and Marcik, far more alive and dynamic in their individual sections, will be relegated to a secondary, supportive status to Nikolas. Early in the book, Nikolas comes across as a scholar who speaks too often, at length, without recognizing how foolish he sounds. Recast as the leader of a revolution, his charm, his powers of speech, and his impressive intellect are told but rarely shown. By the second half of the novel, one senses overcompensation—a need to remind the reader—when Adrian sees Nikolas as “too brilliant, too resourceful.” Even Marcik—at a tense moment when he is at odds with his brother—says unconvincingly, “You are a brilliant man, Nikolas, the real genius of the family.”
The trouble is not that Nikolas cannot be brilliant, or a leader; rather it is that the book’s depiction of the young man cannot support the idea. In service of Nikolas’ “brilliance” even Katya, a porcelain-masked woman initially presented as tough and independent, is reduced by the novel’s second half to simply existing as his lover, unerring in her belief in him. “‘But you’re too important,” Katya tells Nikolas. “If we lose you, the revolution is lost.’ … [Katya] hated the way what [Nikolas] said was always right … he knew he was more important for the revolution than others.” Katya, luckily, avoids the unfortunate pattern established in this novel: too often, girls and women are presented as mentally unbalanced, suicidal, raped, used as sexual objects, or blackmailed into appearing in propaganda films before being killed off in car accidents. Eventually, one is left wishing for a strong female character of depth and complication who lives for herself, not as a sacrifice for a man.
In the end, the plots set into motion at the beginning of this trilogy are carefully considered, and for such a lengthy work, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own moves briskly. In its epic scope, the novel is able to address several issues; as with other works of postapocalyptic and dystopian fiction, the book often recontextualizes and comments on issues of class divide, the role of resistance in an authoritarian government, the use of media, and the ties of family and friendship in times of duress. Elliot and Clement are particularly effective in describing scenes of resistance. The novel’s momentum is wisely built in each rebellion orchestrated by The Underground echoing and amplifying the violence and destruction of the previous one.
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own is a novel that wishes to challenge the expectations of genre work and at the same deliver a satisfying tale of young men taking different paths in life. The world of Joshua City is richly imagined and lovingly evoked. From this material, Elliot and Clement have written a thrilling novel of a world with much left to explore, so that the novel’s ending is no ending at all, but a propulsion toward future volumes.
The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, by Okla Elliot and Raul Clement. Dark House Press. 724 pages. $16.95, paper.
Brett Beach’s fiction has appeared in The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Hobart, The Normal School, Slice, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Wisconsin.