Lilancholy by John Battle

This is a strange, arresting book that one hundred percent works better as a novel(la) than as the lyric game it purports to be.

Ostensibly a collection of spells and games created and played by two young girls living within recent memory, the short descriptions take common childhood games of the West and give them a sinister turn. The spells and games sections are connected by the story of the girls, who’ve since grown up and apart. Their tale is half paracosm (a known weakness of mine) and half horror story, with evil fairies working to steal what humanity they can from the unwitting humans around them.

The story is great, and the inclusion of the spells and games inspired: granted, I have a weakness for stories that experiment with form, in addition to my Achilles’ heel for childhood paracosms. The narrator is unreliable, in the way that the heightened emotions of childhood allow the boundaries between reality and fiction to blur. My only complaint about the story itself is the ending. I don’t mind stories that begin in media res or end in a way that’s open to the reader’s interpretation. Abrupt endings that seem better suited to the middle of the book, on the other hand, are far more frustrating than interesting for me, especially when it seems unlikely that a sequel will ever be written.

As far as lyric games go, if this is a book that is meant to be read rather than played, then it definitely succeeds. I could honestly imagine attempting exactly none of these games or spells as an adult. Perhaps it’s because there’s already a gripping story anchoring the game, such that I don’t see the need to contribute one of my own. Perhaps it’s because they evoke too closely spells and games I already know from my own weird childhood. Perhaps it’s at least a little because these games are so simple and specific to the characters here that it doesn’t feel at all like an invitation to play, and more like set dressing for the compulsive, affecting story John Battles wants to tell. YMMV, ofc: there are lots of games that don’t work for me personally but that plenty of others adore. Regardless, it’s still a good read.

The only place where I feel Lilancholy utterly misses the mark is in its attempt to work as a guide to a secret world. We learn very little of the strange world of fearsome fairies, or about as much as one would expect from a novella. It’s an oddly unsatisfying label to stick on an otherwise accomplished project.

I bought this book because I enjoyed and admired Mr Battle’s previous publication, My Body Is A Cage. Thus I was kinda surprised by how little there was to Lilancholy compared to the similarly priced MBiaC, being maybe half the size, black and white and with much fewer graphics. And while I didn’t mind the additional printing charge I was slapped with after the crowdfunding campaign for the former ended, I did raise an eyebrow on learning that Kickstarter backers such as myself weren’t actually given a discount compared to post-campaign backers. Oh well, lessons learned and all.

Lilancholy by John Battle was published December 2022 and is available for purchase from his page, tho you might have to poke around a bit on DriveThruRPG to find the physical copy.

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