Christopher Golden, The Boys Are
Back in Town
(Bantam, 2004)

Will James, reporter and critic for the Boston Tribune, has just been passed over for a promotion -- on the weekend of his 10-year high school reunion -- because his articles are too "eccentric." (They are primarily in the style of his idol Harry Houdini, on occult subjects like Wicca and vampires.) The next day, he travels to his hometown of Eastborough, Massachusetts, for the reunion.

But since this is a Christopher Golden novel, this isn't going to be just any high school reunion. Almost as soon as Will arrives, something strange happens: when he asks about his friend Mike (Mike had sent Will an e-mail saying he would attend), his other friends look at him in horror. That's not funny, they say. You know Mike died before graduation; you were at the funeral.

Even odder is the fact that Will suddenly does have a vague memory of that series of events -- where there was no such memory before. Before long, other things Will thought he remembered are changed, and he begins to notice changes in the personalities of the people around him as their memories (and therefore realities) are affected. But the worst is when he watches his best friend Ashleigh transform before his eyes from the shiny girl he loves into a world-weary sufferer, all due to a single event. Someone is messing around with their pasts, and Will seems to be the only one who realizes it. To fix it, and to find out who's behind this insidious transformation, Will has to go back into his past and rediscover a talent he has long tried to forget.

The Boys Are Back in Town represents a sort of coming of age for author Christopher Golden, then (and in some circles still) known primarily for his media tie-in and young-adult series novels. Previously, his works wore their influences on their sleeves -- Straight On 'Til Morning was a Peter Pan update of sorts; The Ferryman featured Styx guardian Charon -- a practice Golden continues to adopt with his modern updates of classic stories (Bloodstained Oz, etc.), but The Boys Are Back in Town feels truly original. The premise may feel somewhat familiar but the plot framework is Golden's own.

Golden's characters, as usual, are detailed and realistic. Since a good deal of the action focuses on their time in high school, he gets to cater to his faithful young-adult audience while not alienating the adult market. The only trouble is that the adults (with a few important exceptions) aren't really all that different from their younger counterparts (but, then again, we all know people who haven't changed since high school). Threaded among the events is a nice lesson in how our memories shape the people we later become. But his greatest accomplishment is in his very moving portrait of the platonic love between Will and Ashleigh. Even if you never had a best friend you truly loved, you'll know what it feels like when you finish this book.

I've read a number of novels where problems are caused, then solved, through the use of magic (usually spelled "magick"), but The Boys Are Back in Town is the first one that didn't resort to silly, florid incantations or spells cast in an ancient language for verisimilitude. Golden accomplishes this by a simple feat: he has his characters use and believe in magic, and so the reader does, too. This kind of matter-of-fact approach succeeds with all of the more "out there" parts of the story, like time travel (with the usual paradox omitted, allowing characters to interact with their other-time selves), letting us be swept up in Golden's murder-mystery suspense-thriller plot that pulls the best parts from The Twilight Zone and Back to the Future, among others. And he does not slight us on the ending, offering up a conclusion that is both literarily satisfying and emotionally rewarding.

It's always fascinating to watch an author develop, and The Boys Are Back in Town is a big step forward for Golden, one that shows how he was perhaps training his literary muscles for a larger task, such as the recent Veil trilogy (beginning with The Myth Hunters), in which all of his skills come to fruition. But it's also just a solid thriller, a fully involving read ideal for anyone in search of a fast-paced, character-focused novel, even if they don't generally enjoy stories with elements of fantasy, because Golden integrates them into his story so seamlessly.

[Craig Clarke]