After deliberately (and maybe just a little accidentally-on-purpose-permanently) transforming her despicably risible co-worker Stan into a black cat, novice witch Eleanor finds herself excommunicated from her coven in Karen Heuler’s The Splendid City.
Now intrinsically bound to her feline frenemy, her only hope of salvation is to track down a missing witch in the newly formed country of Liberty.
Except Liberty isn’t a normal country, it’s actually the state of Texas if it succeeded from the USA. Even in his cat form, Stan loves Liberty, its bombastic President, its daily parades and of course the fish tacos. However, with the non-stop decrying of fake news about water shortages and the regular daylight drive-by abductions that see residents disappear into unmarked vans, Eleanor is not so sure everyone really is as happy as they say they are living in Liberty.
A beautifully absurdist satire of the hypothetical (possibly potential?) path that lay before the USA if it chose to continue to indulge in popcorn politics, there’s something of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle anarchism in the way Heuler tackles the unfathomable events that transpire.
Unashamedly liberal yet clinically observant in her exploration of politics and human interaction, Heuler shows an innate ability to tell what appears on the surface a frivolous tale of nonsense whilst quietly confronting very real and deeply uncomfortable constructs such as gaslighting and gender inequality.
The redemption plot of finding a missing person (or in Stan’s case, finding buried treasure), is an elegantly simplistic fare that selflessly takes a backseat until the secrets of both Eleanor and Liberty’s origin are unravelled at which point the whimsical nature of the story reveals its darker undertones. Mirroring the flow of the story, Heuler’s writing begins with a level of nonchalance that slowly grows to confusion through to biting resentment and finally disappointment and pity.
Both sad and hilarious, by mixing the madness of our modern-day political landscape with the fantasy rules of witchcraft, The Splendid City crafts a perfect quirk that ramps to wtf levels of genre-bending weirdness while packing enough common sense and humour to deliver something meaningful in a story about a white witch and her human-cat that shoots old ladies who disagree with him at the bus stop.
The Splendid City by Karen Heuler is out now.