Summary according to Barnes & Noble: Penny Lazarus has spent her entire life wishing she could escape from the real world. Through it all, she had exactly one friend – her twin sister, Dana – and now Dana’s dead, drowned in the distant Pacific under mysterious circumstances. But she left something behind, meant only for her sister’s eyes: a cryptic document that sends Penny off to the wilds of Appalachia…and then straight off I-64 and into a madcap parallel universe. Here, in the alternate America known as the Back Roads, every individual’s deepest desire emerges as a powerful supernatural ability. In Penny’s case, that means she’s a Veil, capable of turning herself invisible, intangible, ghost-like. Stranger yet, this is a place Dana somehow knew about. Now Penny must fight her way across a nightmare landscape of cyborg bikers, man-eating mosquitoes, snake-handling zealots and warring Cherokee demigods in search of the truth. What she hoped to find were the answers behind her sister’s death. But what awaits her at the end of the road is something even bigger – the dark secret of her own world-shattering destiny.
When I started this book by Christian O’Neill; I admit I expected good fighting evil in a magical world with a sweet and innocent Snow White protagonist. Penny Lazarus, is the furthest from Snow White you can get…and you have to love her for it. A foul mouthed, depressed, low self-esteem lead character, who does face evil; but mostly the evil within herself. She is realistic and packs a punch figuratively and literally.
O’Neill gives us a twist of Appalachian folklore which ties in American storytelling and song; which seems to run in most of his character’s veins. With the Appalachian tradition and folklore considered in this novel, we learn more about the mysterious back roads through the people within it. They share various stories and myths that have surrounded them for years and as Sly ( a fox-man who has certainly earned his name) put at one point in the book, the “passage of time plays all sorts of funny tricks,” referring to how stories tend to change from person to person as they’re told. His characters seemed to jump off the pages with their witty dialogue and each of those characters had a voice all their own with humorous and brilliant accent writing by O’Neill. You can also tell that the writer’s style has been influenced by his experience in the theater/film world with even a few sections of the story written as a script.
At first I thought I was going to be annoyed by this pessimist of a lead, but O’Neill made sure that Penny would blossom throughout the story to keep his readers on their toes. This blossoming is with the help of various supportive characters, but none more so than Alana, who is a bit of a complex herself, having trouble with changing into a wolf and all; and Sly, who can turn into a fox, who will keep you laughing with his trickery. They too find themselves changing as they journey together through what can only be described as the backwoods version of a fairytale.
A word of caution: This story is much darker than I would have thought it to be. A lot of death and disturbing occurrences that make me glad I haven’t stumbled into this world by accident. I certainly wouldn’t want to be around the cyborg bikers that sell slaves like livestock. Yikes! So if you weren’t a fan of Game of Thrones or Hunger Games…then get over it and read this book anyway!
All in all it was definitely something different, which is refreshing from the overhaul of fairytale reboots going on. Christian O’Neill will be continuing the series and you can follow his work if you click on the links below.
Christian O’Neill is a writer/director/other living in New York City with his wife Leah, a librarian who is also the Empress of Desserts, she says, because of something called “Swarm,” and his 5-year old son Asher, who knows one karate move and uses it often, regardless of what mood he’s in. He studied ancient history at Providence College in the hopes of becoming actual Indiana Jones, and then went on to earn master’s degrees in Theater Education from Emerson College and Directing from Brooklyn College. He now knows more about theater than Indiana Jones did. He works by day as a social worker in the NYC foster care system, because he saw Les Miserables when he was 14 and it stuck with him. BACK ROADS KINGDOM, his first novel, is the culmination of decades of telling people that he would someday write a novel. For so, so much more information, please visit www.christianoneill.com.
Happy reading dreamers!