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Last Exit

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Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.

Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.

Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.

When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.

Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.

As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.

But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.

Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

400 pages, Paperback

First published March 8, 2022

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About the author

Max Gladstone

132 books2,229 followers
Max Gladstone is the author of the Craft Sequence: THREE PARTS DEAD, TWO SERPENTS RISE, FULL FATHOM FIVE, and most recently, LAST FIRST SNOW. He's been twice nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer award, and nominated for the XYZZY and Lambda Awards.

Max has taught in southern Anhui, wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat, and been thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Max graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 284 reviews
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,101 followers
February 23, 2022
Here's what you probably need to know. This is a gloriously multi-genre-mashing horror/fantasy/SF epic. The blurb doesn't do it justice.

Think SK's Dark Tower meets IT. Flavor it well with gorgeous small-line language that's some of the best, so evocative. Break up the story between two time periods and a massive road trip epic in a world (or rather, many, many worlds) gone wrong. And throw us some of the best, most genuinely scary scenes with tension coming out my ears.

Before I knew what was happening, I was completely lost in the tale, awash in real-life details and modern references that reminded me VERY fondly SK's early novels, leading me into very firm despair before the band got back together. And that's just the setup, leading us to a very Dark Tower-like epic that had me squealing like a true fanboy for ANY kind of novel or novelist able to pull this off in grand style.

And Max Gladstone did.


To be entirely honest, even though I had loved his original UF series and truly adored a certain red vs blue romance, I wasn't entirely sure this particular novel would have gone all out with originality and skills. It just seemed... interesting, not epic.

I'm glad I'm very wrong on that score. This was fantastic.
Profile Image for Rebecca Roanhorse.
Author 55 books8,060 followers
Read
September 27, 2021
Gladstone's latest is strange and wondrous and chilling and creepy and beautiful all at once. It is about the end of the world, but also about found friends and lost loves and what scares us and breaks us, and what ties us back together, and breaks us, again. The story is told in shifting viewpoints and timelines, moving between four friends (and one girl's cousin) who meet at Yale and discover magic through mathematics. Parallel universes and shape-shifting baddies and the great black stretch of the American road awaits. Young and idealistic, the four think they can find a better world than the shit one we have now, but they end up discovering something quite different, and it shatters them. Reunited as adults who are now worn down by the world, they must find their way back to magic and trust and hope, or die trying. It is a book fit for our end-of-times times.
Profile Image for Trish.
2,016 reviews3,435 followers
February 26, 2022
Ten years ago, Zelda and a few of her college friends, including her girlfriend Sal, discovered that they could step from this world into alternate ones and that they have "knacks". But what sounds like a cool adventure full of exploration and bold stuff soon turned very dark because those "alts" have something called the rot. It has killed these worlds and whatever/whoever lived in it. In the spirit of exploration and every quest known to man, the band tried to get to the center of it all, the crossroads, to defeat it but the closer they got, the more dangerous their endeavor became until they eventually lost Sal.
Now, Zelda is back at Sal's family's apartment in NYC on Sal's birthday to repent. She's been doing that for the past ten years. Because how Sal was lost exactly is a vital part of what's going on here. While the other friends lost their love of adventuring, Zelda kept going. While the others tried to forget the traumatic experiences, Zelda has been trying to undo at least part of what they did.
You see, when they failed, they sorta caused (bigger) cracks between the alts and even into our reality. Cracks through which the rot can now spread even more, even faster. They didn't cause the problem, but they certainly made it worse. Which means hell is coming and Zelda has been trying to at least slow it down.
Now, though, Sal's young cousin wants to join up and the band is getting back together (some joining more reluctantly than others), righting what is wrong.
More than one world has ended and many more are at risk.

This kind of novel, with different realities and timelines as well as different realities and events, could easily have been botched. I'm glad to say that Max Gladstone has done a brilliant job however!

I definitely got vibes from The Gone World (I was just as disoriented in an intrigued kind of way at the beginning of this book as with that one) as well as The Dark Tower vibes what with the "road trip", the sickness spreading through multiple worlds and all the alts (I loved seeing so many versions of America). Not to mention "the cowboy". *lol*

The characters were … distinct. All of them were lively, diverse and realistic. I can definitely say that I disliked most of them if only for abandoning Zelda the way they had (yes, yes, I know, redemption trope, yadda yadda yadda). I absolutely disliked Sarah and her arrogant judgement of Zelda / refusal to accept her own culpability (obviously, she had always been a bitch, even back in college). I wanted to smack her. A lot. But that just means I was REALLY invested and that the way we were introduced to each person was really great (threads coming together like in SK's famous story of some kids fighting a certain "clown"). Not to mention that my negative feelings didn't stop me from holding my breath throughout.

The writing style was very clever (not too simplistic, but also not convoluted or anything), the author casually throwing in references to current sociological as well as political world events and deeply unsettling foreshadowing (much like SK) while one was freaking out about bugs and body horror scenarios. But there were also references to Norse mythology and pop-culture. So rich. With so many layers. It was wonderful to unlock the different levels and revel in the complexity.

Then there was the truly magnificent worldSbuilding. Yes, plural. Every alt was so detailed and real, it was breathtaking. And that atmosphere! Whether it was the afore-mentioned body horror or the psychological warfare or the depressing state between the group members (once again: secrecy and a lack of communication was the root of misfortune) - the reader gets all the feels and experiences each situation intently.

Right until the very last second of the story, you're sitting on the edge of your seat, having questions and theories and STILL not the solution to who was/is right and what/who is the true threat - or if the truth is something entirely different. Therefore, you keep anxiously asking yourself who you should cheer on to win! *lol* You gotta love that kind of mystery!

In short, this was tremendous fun, very smart, much more so than I had anticipated, and it might very well be my favorite book of the year!
Profile Image for Scratch.
969 reviews36 followers
May 11, 2022
Generally, I like Max Gladstone. He has a nice mixture of sci-fi, fantasy, and moody protagonists who also happen to be heroic. This particular novel is only a reluctant 4 stars, though.

The whole point of the novel is that the main characters were also struggling to fight "The Rot" between alternate realities, while they otherwise backpacked like typical college kids. These 5 main characters met in college and all had an affinity for accessing alternate realities. After their first trip, they also each developed ill-defined personalized superpowers known as "knacks."

A lot of the rules to all this aren't terribly clear. The ability to move between realities seems to boil down to changing the way you think about reality, and imagining yourself moving in an impossible direction. There is no other mechanism. That, and some talk about roads and compass points. The reason people develop a "knack" is also unclear. No specific mechanism is provided (like radiation, magic, genetic engineering, whatever). It is just taken for granted that the protagonist Zelda has the power to alter probability, so long as she is open minded about what all the possibilities are.

Some of her cohorts have knacks that receive way less attention, and I would have difficulty describing how they work. One guy can always find things. A woman automatically twists probability to protect her own life and limb. The other characters use their powers much less.

All the realities that these protagonists go to are rotten. Not in the sense that they're growing a lot of moss or whatever, but in that they're always depressing. Heroes lose. People die. Insane cyborgs seize control and wipe out the civilian population. Whatever. It's to the point that the protagonists say that they were never able to find a reality that was better than our own, even if other realities have more advanced technology.

Zelda spends a lot of time bemoaning her depressing past. Her group of friends kept finding terrible realities, and along the way she lost her girlfriend in the course of their adventures. However, there is the ominous threat that now, something like ten years later, the girlfriend might be coming back. And now she embodies the "Rot" that is destroying worlds. However, her younger cousin (like, 15-20 years younger) is brought in as a stand-in for her, and the protagonist and her friends come to feel all this affection and loyalty for the much younger girl after remarkably little contact.

At least 50-60 percent of this crew is queer in some way, but none of them use labels. The majority of these people are around my age (35), except for June, the new resident young person. June explicitly talks about how half of her friends are neither male nor female, so I guess she knows a lot of trans/nonbinary people. Still, the primary protagonist appears to be around my age and bi (?), without ever actually calling herself bi. Her mostly absent girlfriend also was clearly something queer. Ramon is described as "mostly brown and mostly queer" early on. I take that to mean that he mostly dates men (which he explicitly does in this book), but he's open to dating women? And he isn't going to tell us what label he prefers?

I'll need to look up Max Gladstone. It was my understanding he was a cishet man. The last couple works of his I read also featured lesbians (?) prominently. "This is How You Lose the Time War" was all about a lesbian romance between time-traveling assassins. Then there was that story with a lesbian protagonist where she found herself in the distant future in outer space, fighting an evil version of herself. So, should I be pleased that he's giving all this queer representation, or annoyed with a cishet man for including so many lesbian characters for his own titillation?

I dunno. Either way, definitely irritated with him for doing the Generation Z thing of refusing to use any label at all other than maybe "queer." People my age and older are extremely comfortable with labels, and would prefer to use them.
Profile Image for Elena Linville.
Author 1 book62 followers
March 23, 2022
Stars: 2.5 out of 5

It pains me to give a less than stellar rating to Max Gladstone, but this is the first book of his I've been disappointed with. How can a book about found family, road trip, end of the world, parallel universes and so on be so... boring?

I loved this author's Craft series. They are wonderfully imaginative and full of interesting characters and thought provoking concepts. So of course I jumped on the chance to get an ARC of this through NetGalley. And my initial state while I was reading this book, before the boredom set in, was that of bewilderment. Is this the author who wowed me with his other books? Am I reading this wrong? What is going on?

Oh, there are glimpses of the author I love in this story. There are moments that are tightly written and intensely terrifying. Like when the Cowboy first becomes aware of Sarah on the interstate, or the confrontation at the Best Western, or when Zelda is in the bug-infested tunnels under an alt New York. Those scenes had me at the edge of my seat, with my heart in my throat, terrified for the well-being of the characters...

Unfortunately, those moments of brilliance are few and far between. And they are bogged down by pages and pages of flashbacks, introspections, inner dialog about how miserable the characters are and how they think that the world is ending. It's self-pity and self-recrimination on page upon page upon page. So you get this brilliant scene when the action is non-stop, the stakes are high, and the characters in danger... then you have 50 pages of inner monolog topped with a flashback on their first journey. Momentum - shot dead, not by the cowboy in a white hat, but by sheer boredom. In fact, I think that the book is at least 200 pages too long. My Kindle assured me that it was 400 pages long, but it felt like one of those 1000+ pages door stoppers - never-ending.

I think this approach would have worked if I cared for any of the characters, but I didn't. They are all unlikeable, selfish people who wear their failures like a badge of honor and wallow in self-pity for most of the book. And since the reader has to follow them and be privy to their most inner thoughts, it makes for a very painful read, and not in a good way. 

Also, it is constantly hinted that their first journey to find the crossroads went horribly wrong and resulted in Sal's downfall, but the book drags the actual story over pages and pages of hints and self-pity. By the time we actually learn what happened it feels... anti-climatic? I was like, "So all this misery is because of this? Are you kidding me?" Not a good thing when Sal's downfall and Zelda's guilt about it are the cornerstone of this story. 

By the end of the book I was so bored with the story, that I just skimmed through the last 10%. Also not good. The ending is supposed to be rewarding. It's supposed to justify the effort the reader put into sticking with 400 pages of story. It was anything but that. And the big reveal and twist wasn't all that shocking either. 

When I had finished the other books of this author, I had a sense of satisfaction and joy. I had wanted to savor the story, to re-read passages that I liked the most. When I finished Last Exit, all I had is a sense of relief that the slog was finally over and that I could delete the ARC from my Kindle. 

I will not recommend this book. Max Gladstone is a wonderful author though, so I suggest you read his Craft series instead. 
Profile Image for Fiona.
1,268 reviews231 followers
January 31, 2022
There was no one to ask. They'd set out on this quest without a wizard to guide them, finding the rules as they went. To do that, you read, you listened to jazz records of to the blues, you argued about hip-hop lyrics, you danced and you wanted dancers and you listened to poets and storytellers where poems were still read and stories still told. Sometimes you caught a glimpse, you caught a hint that others knew what you knew, that they had dreamed the path you now walked, or walked it themselves for a while.

This review originally appeared on mysteryandsuspense.com. Last Exit may be very different to Gladstone's beloved Craft Sequence, but I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

Last Exit is a dark, sprawling fantasy thriller that shouts defiance, triumphs the power of love and friendship, and will take its readers on a journey through worlds for the chance to resolve a terrible loss.

While at college, Zelda and her closer-than-family friends discovered a way to slip between what they call ‘alts’ – alternative versions of our own Earth, worlds similar to, but entirely apart from our own. They were young, they were looking for adventure, and they found it; until one terrible day that cost them one of their own and splintered the group. Zelda is the only one to reject returning to a more normal life, staying on the road, forever on the move, destroying the rot that slips between the cracks in reality and threatens our own world. But ten years later, the problem’s only growing worse, and when an encounter offers Zelda proof that the woman she loved may be trapped between alts, she knows the only chance to save the world is to get the band back together for one last mission.

This novel is a tapestry of characters, locations, and storylines, all thoughtfully made and woven together into one of the most satisfyingly expansive novels I’ve ever read. It's no bright and shiny portal fantasy full of the wonder of the discovery of new worlds - it's the decade-later real world understanding that life is hard, whether you jump through a portal or not. There’s a real urgency to the narrative – the world is under threat, our heroes are pursued by a truly terrifying foe – but there’s also moments of contemplation, the reader and the characters given a moment to breathe and gather themselves for the next leg of the journey. The story frequently dips into the backstory of this group of friends and their lives, both before it all went wrong ten years ago, and in the time since they went their separate ways. By the end of the novel, I knew them better than I know some people in the real world – to say it ups the stakes when an author can form that kind of bond between reader and characters is to undersell it.

Max Gladstone is already known for his limitless imagination and beautiful prose, not to mention his ability to find the magic in spaces usually deemed mundane. With Last Exit, he’s held nothing back, creating an edge and a depth of feeling that makes this novel raw and visceral, beautiful even at its bleakest moments and inspiring hope even as it breaks your heart. It’s a rollercoaster, a scream of defiance into an uncaring universe – and a truly excellent book.
Profile Image for Rachel (TheShadesofOrange).
2,206 reviews3,204 followers
March 16, 2022
3.5 Stars
As a piece of literary speculative fiction, this book is so hard to classify. It has elements of an interesting magic system, yet it does not feel fantastical. It is also technically science fiction with its post apocalyptic story, yet those elements almost fade into the background. 

Really this is a story of characters. The plot is sparse and slow. These kinds of stories don't always work well for me, but this one did.

The writing and storytelling in this book really floored me. Despite the thin plot, I found myself captivated by much of the narrative. Admittedly, my interest waned during some sections and it could have been been bit shorter, but overall I was really enamored by this one.

Overall I highly recommend this one to anyone who can appreciate a piece of character driven SFF with fantastic character work.

Disclaimer I received a copy of this book from the publisher. 
Profile Image for Sahitya.
1,052 reviews215 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
January 8, 2022
DNF at about 14%.

I really wanted to like this book. But the suicide ideation in the first chapter itself put me off immediately. It’s too much of a trigger for me to feel comfortable. I still continued reading but couldn’t get into the story anymore. But I have to say that whatever I did read, I found the writing to be very beautiful and I’m sure others who love urban fantasy can appreciate this one better than me.
Profile Image for Mar at BOOKIVERSE .
343 reviews212 followers
March 1, 2022
2.8 stars

Unfortunately this was a DNF at 30%.

The story just move way too slow for my taste.

By 15% I realized this was going to be a character driven literary fiction work so I was ready for a slow plot and I tried REALLY HARD to get through another 15% because the writing is good and the premise about traveling to other realities was so promising!

However, there was way too much inner dialogue, introspection are back stories that didn't seem to add anything to either the character arc or story arc, at least for me. Same for overly described settings and scenes and events that didn't add anything to the story

At 30% I realized almost nothing had happened and I was not invested whatsoever in the story.
Profile Image for Ellis.
1,217 reviews137 followers
August 12, 2022
This was a five-star book, easy, when I started it at the beginning of July. It's full of so many of the things that I want out of my fantasy novels: magical quests to save the world undertaken by young people who fail and have to get back together for one last try even though they're older and maybe less magical the second time around, lots of allusion to dark mysteries and secret back roads to other worlds. It was so good in fact that I got about halfway through and was inspired to take up some of my own writing again, but alas for Last Exit because as a consequence I stopped reading almost altogether until a few weeks ago, and by the time I got back to this my interest had waned enough that my issues with the story line were more glaring. This book works really, really well when it's talking about actual events and not feelings, like how Zelda came up with all of the math that made their quest possible, or what took place in the Green Glass City, or at Elsinore. Gladstone is fabulous at dropping vivid little hints that I find super compelling; honestly just have a character in this type of alternate-worlds adventure say something like, Don't forget what happened at . . . Elsinore and I've heard the ominous note in my head and I'm totally hooked, and then Gladstone lays down a bit of a payoff like:

"It would be easier to explain if you'd seen the castle up close, before it fell. All velvets and tapestries, jewels and secret passages, bright fires and revels and assignations. They lived in gold and silver; the vizier prayed to a magic mirror. They were queens and kings and lords, they carried knives and used them."

So okay, that passage and Gladstone's use of "whispers in plush corners" and "those final banquet days" a few pages earlier, and now I know what I need to about what went down Elsinore because these few words are so evocative, so rich with weird detail, I get to fill in blanks myself a bit and I like doing that. I've come to realize that I'm a sucker for a dark-hints book, I like to use my imagination if an author gives me a few clues to work with (this is also why I liked, off the top of my head, These Prisoning Hills which I also just finished) as long as the author pays out in the end, which Gladstone does for the most part, without having to directly relive everything. But this book tends to lean too heavily on endless repetition of the character's inner lives; Zelda thinks she is this way but June thinks she is like this, Ish is one type of guy but Sarah knows he's really this type of guy, we were strong and cool when we were kids and now we're grownups and we're really afraid that we can't pull this off! I get it, I get it, this is super common in the magical quest novel and I don't need to rehash it every few chapters, especially at the expense of telling me more about these alternate worlds. Gimme more action and less cogitating. But the ending was very good and I love, loved the last chapter. At some point I went to put a random note in my phone and saw I'd written, "Solve the problems of America with magic and the power of complicated friendships," and that's as good a review as anything.
15 reviews
March 11, 2022
Last Exit has an interesting premise and unique characters. Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by the book's many flaws. Firstly, it's far too long, slowly paced, and extremely repetitive. When the group meets up in Montana to plan their quest, the book is already on page 300, and it does not speed up from there. This is partially because we are constantly held hostage by the characters' identical circular thoughts ("why did I come here," "can I really save the world," etc.), partially because the characters have the same conversations over and over again ("why did we come here," "can we really save the world," etc.), partially because every "alt" is a Mad Max ripoff, and partially because the book is full of flashbacks that show what we know already but with slightly more detail each time. As a result, despite the length of the book, we don't really know what's going on until it's almost over. Additionally, it's uninteresting to watch the characters confront obstacles using "spin," a.k.a. thinking really hard, and we never worry that they'll be defeated because they can ostensibly do anything. The book is also extremely self-righteous. It's very proud of itself for taking political positions that aren't much more than common sense (racism is bad, school shootings are bad, police brutality is bad), repeating talking points that have been retweeted millions of times. I’m sorry! I wanted to like it :(
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Meredith Katz.
Author 16 books180 followers
February 3, 2022
Reading "Last Exit" is like reading a 400 page poem -- you have to go slow because each word works hard to carry more than its individual weight, and each sentence is doing its best to say at least three things. Example: "Sarah was a doctor now, and she'd been Sarah all along, so [Ish] didn't mention the dying man." Thing one: It's telling us that there's a man who's dying, Sarah will go to help if she knows about it, and Ish needs her not to. Thing two: It's telling us a lot about Sarah, things we'll need to know going forward. Thing three: It's telling us a lot about Ish, also things we'll need to know going forward. And these aren't isolated cases; I took this at random, because nearly every sentence on every page carries extra weight like this. The result is a book that is much bigger than its word count, because reading it requires not just factual understanding but active interpretation at all times. It took a lot longer to read than my usual pace, because I had to go so much slower; I'd often read what felt like fifteen, twenty pages, and then look up to see I'd gone only 1% further.

And for the record, that's a good thing! That said, I think the blurb is a bit misleading. It's definitely not a book if you're looking to read a light-hearted romp where the old gang gets back together to travel through alternate realities and save the world, but it's a book to read if you want to actually have to sit down and think about what that would actually mean for the people involved.

It's a post-apocalyptic story set in our current world -- which is to say, it forces the reader to acknowledge that we are currently living in a post-apocalyptic world, that we have caused apocalypses to so many individual cultures and societies already. (By which I mean: A post-apocalyptic setting could be, for example, one where we observe the scrappy survivors on a world after an alien invasion that wiped out most of humanity and replaced a lot of our cities and cultures with their own -- but have humans not done this to other human cultures many a time)? It sends the characters traveling through other worlds -- rather, other Americas, this is important -- where the apocalypses may seem more real and fantastical, but it makes you acknowledge that our own is there too. It's about the world rotting, and specifically about it rotting at the core of the myth of America the Great, as well as the myth of privilege (whiteness and heterosexuality), and the things people will do not just to uphold the myth of privilege in America, but the things they'll do to try to belong to that myth, whether or not they actually can. It's a story about having to face the fact that there is no good end to things as they are now, so you're going to have to look at how things could be changed so they're not things as they are now.

It's queer, it's brutally sharp, it's a quest story about trying to find a girlfriend who has probably become some sort of eldritch god between worlds, and it's... odd, lyrical, moving, disturbing.

If there's any flaw to it -- and I'm not sure I can even call this a flaw, exactly, because it's very deliberate -- it's that some of the cast aren't likeable, and not only do they not like each other much now in the get-back-together-for-one-last-job stage, even when we read flashbacks to when they were carefree youths together, they didn't seem to like each other then (not really, not as who they really are). So it's less about revisiting a group of found family and more about people who may not get along under most circumstances being the only ones who have figured out the impossibility of traveling between realities and thus are bonded by the atrocities they see there. But there are things which can grow from that, too.

I'm not sure I always liked the experience of reading Last Exit, but even when I didn't, it was always really, really good. I can't criticize any part of its writing or meaning, and my only caution would be to ignore the overtones of the blurb and instead be ready to read and be open to something a lot heavier, because it's got a lot to say if you're in a place to slow down and take it in.
Profile Image for Didi Chanoch.
126 reviews81 followers
February 14, 2022
I got my audio copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher.

I've been a Max Gladstone fan for a long time. I loved the craft books, adored "Bookburners," the multi-author audio project he created. His collaboration with Amal El-Mohtar, "This Is How You Lose The Time War" was my favorite book of 2019. So it's fair to say I came in with high expectations. The book met, and then exceeded these expectations.

Since people like to invent genres, and I'm people too, let me try and coin a term: LAST EXIT is a work of Quantum Fantasy. This is a subgenre of science fantasy that takes place in our world and/or adjacent worlds, and is informed by quantum physics. The two books I would put in this subgenre are LAST EXIT and Cadwell Turnbull's NO GODS, NO MONSTERS. Both books are dark, deal very much with our current reality, have more than a tinge of horror. Both books are about change and stasis, and have epic plots with finely drawn characters.

Gladstone and Turnbull are also both very, very good at the writing thing.

I won't talk about plot, here, and even delving into themes can be tricky, spoiler-wise. I will say this books has a fractured found family, friendship and love, and a terrifying and insidious villain. This is a book about trying to fix mistakes, and about how even the smartest people can - in the right circumstances - be idiots. It is also very much a book about trauma. Personal and societal.

I think this is the first truly great book I've read in 2022.
Profile Image for laurel [the suspected bibliophile].
1,501 reviews445 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
March 1, 2022
DNF at 25%

The plotline started off interesting, but it's gotten slow and boring and I don't care to read badly written sex scenes that are there for...reasons?

And I wasn't liking the audiobook narrator.

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review
Profile Image for Mike.
404 reviews102 followers
August 13, 2022
There were three other, somewhat mismatched, works of SF/F that kept coming to mind as I read this book: American Gods by Niel Gaiman, The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. American Gods for the setting: contemporary America, with magic and menace in the mundane. Dark Tower for the inspiration behind the plot: a ka-tet that sought the Tower, failed, and was broken and scattered, coming together to try again. And KPS because it was so obvious that this book was the author’s method of coping with gestures vaguely at everything. (as an aside, Gladstone’s and Scalzi’s respective coping strategies are more or less polar opposites, which doesn’t really surprise me)

To expand on the plot: a group of students from Yale figured out a way to travel to alternate realities, all of which are broken and ruined in various ways (Earth Prime is as good as it gets, which is depressing). They had various adventures that are alluded to, and sought to reach the center of everything where they hope to be able to fix everything. It doesn’t go well, one of them is lost, and the group all goes their separate ways. The main protagonist, the lover of the one who was lost, obsessively continues the work solo. The others all try to find normal lives and forget what they have seen. The story proper kicks off when the main protagonist asks them all to come together to deal with a looming threat.

This was not the easiest book to read. It was hyper-contemporary for the last few years. Covid-19, Donald Trump, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, ICE: none of these are mentioned explicitly, but they all play a big role in the story (one of the group, after they went their separate ways, went on to found a fictional version of Palantir Technologies with all the questionable ethics involved). The overall feel of the world since (approximately) November 2016 is in fact the driving force behind their actions. The group believes that the supernatural “rot” which pervades all the alternate realities is affecting ours as well, making capitalism worse, police more aggressive, people less caring about their neighbors.

Like I said, not a particularly easy book to read. This is about as far from “escapist” as it is possible to get. I’m honestly not sure how to rank this book on a 5-star scale. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this, but I don’t actually think it was a bad book. I think it was three things that kept me from really liking this. One was how topical it was, for obvious reasons. Two was the language: it’s very densely written, with long, many-claused sentences and metaphorical descriptions. Three: it felt very pretentious in places. A decent portion of the book is giving to poking holes in the pretensions of Yale and its students and alumni, but even so, this felt like a very pretentious work of capital-L Literature in any number of places.

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Profile Image for charlotte,.
3,226 reviews872 followers
March 5, 2022
On my blog.

Rep: lesbian mc, Black lesbian li, Black sapphic mc, Latino gay mc, Lakota mc

CWs: gore, violence, suicidal ideation

Galley provided by publisher

How to review Last Exit? It’s a monster novel, a tour de force, not just a cross-dimensional roadtrip, but also a treatise on fear and privilege, love and family. There is so much going on here that it’s difficult to know where to even begin.

Last Exit pretty much asks: what if you tried to save the world and failed? What if that failure caused you to lose someone you loved, to lose everyone you loved in different ways? And what happens when you try bring the band back together to do it all over again?

It’s a dense book—it took me a good few days to get through and more careful reading than I might usually, to soak it all in. But it’s dense in a good way, a very thoughtful book, in a way that leads to such fully fleshed out characters and worlds that you’re absorbed by it, unable to put it down even for the slightest moment. I think the comparison to American Gods is apt here—there’s that same kind of slow build, that same attention to detail in the worldbuilding.

Given the pace of the plot (quite ponderous), what elevated this book for me was its characters. They’re so vibrant and full of life—one little detail I particularly liked was how each individual’s knack within the worlds related to their personality—and you can’t help but be rooting for all of them. And the relationships between them? Perfectly balanced between showing how they came to care so much about one another, the breakage between them, and the slow repair of it as the journey wore on. It’s hard to overstate just how well done it all was.

I think that’s why the pacing—which I might otherwise have suffered with—didn’t matter to me. It was a character-driven novel first and foremost, and the characters were the sort who could drive it. Of course, the plot came into it slowly, unfolding at the right pace to keep you intrigued. It was, basically, the perfect combination for me. The right depth of character work and worldbuilding, the right slow drip of information.

In all, a book I would very much suggest you do not miss. This is probably up there with the best of what science fiction has to offer for me, and definitely cements Max Gladstone as a favourite author.
Profile Image for Susanna.
Author 46 books63 followers
March 7, 2022
Max Gladstone’s latest, Last Exit, is a blend of (pre)apocalyptic sci-fi, magical realism with a horror twist, and a road movie. It shouldn’t really work, but it comes together well enough.

The plot is straight-forward. A group of people who have met in college and banded together to find alternative worlds, gather one more time to find the one they left behind. But the semi-intelligent rot that bleeds into the worlds, destroying them, doesn’t want her to be found. It’s a constant battle all the way to the crossroads at the heart of the alts, which is the only place where they can find her. Sal is the veritable MacGuffin, always a little out of reach, and never as important for the plot as the characters make her to be.

The idea of alternative worlds isn’t unique, but the rot destroying them makes it more interesting, as does the idea that they can be accessed either with magic or mathematic irregularities, depending on which member of the group you believe. The alts were surprisingly boring though, and while the book gives an explanation to why they’re all so similar, I whish more would’ve been done with them.

But the weakness of the book is its characters. I couldn’t connect with any of them. I followed them down the road, but I was never with them on the journey. I never felt their emotions, fears or pain, because the character experiencing them was never the point of view one. They told very little of themselves and at the end of the book I had learned nothing new.

A road movie is never about the road, it’s about the people on a transformative journey. All the elements were there: four people who used to know everything about each other, good and bad, have grown apart and into different persons in ten years they haven’t seen each other. An epic journey is a chance for them to put the past into a rest so that they can continue with the lives they’ve built for themselves.

The characters plunge into endless reminiscing of the time they met and how the band came to be. Surprisingly little time is spent on remembering their time exploring the alts. The crucial event that led Sal to be lost is brushed away with a quick description that includes torture and fighting people to death. I would’ve thought a trauma like that would merit a larger role in their healing process, but instead they talk about the racism of the college they went to—arguably important, but meaningless for the plot, even with its diverse cast—and the state of (present day) America that they live in.

The token outsider that’s supposed to push the characters out of their remembered patterns only managed to enforce them. The climax was clearly meant to happen because of her, but in the end she was pushed aside and played no crucial role.

All in all, the plot could basically have been the same without Jane and the fantasy elements for how little they meant for the characters. They went through their journey and the world was different at the other end—or at least it felt renewed for them, which is the best anyone can hope. If I’d felt them transform with the world, the book would probably have made a greater impact. Now it’s just something I’ve read. I dithered between three and four stars, but the long stretches that left me bored made me give it three stars in the end.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
434 reviews2 followers
July 4, 2022
*I received an audio review copy via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*

3.5

I have such conflicting feelings about this book. I loved the themes and the writing was gorgeous, but I didn't always enjoy the reading experience. Though I did, as always, love Natalie Naudus's narration.

I went into this book expecting something like Nicholas Eames's Kings of the Wyld or Dan Hanks's Swashbucklers with the getting the band back together to complete one final mission and of the two I would say it's more like Swashbucklers with its sense of nostalgia and dread about the future, but it's still not really like either of those books.

The closest comparison I can think of is Cadwell Turnbull's No Gods, No Monsters in the way that the book feels fragmentary as we jump from POV to POV trying to piece together what is actually happening in the narrative, except the narrative is more a vehicle to explore ideas than anything else. And boy were those ideas tough to read sometimes. This book is unflinching in its commentary on "the American Dream" and the present state of the United States.

It is dark and thought provoking and there were times where I had to pause the audiobook just to sit with a phrase or an idea that was presented. I loved the diversity of the cast and the way that each character was flawed and knew it but they were just trying their best with the situations presented to them.

While I didn't love the reading experience as much as I hoped I would, I think the longer I sit with this book the more I like it and I fully expect it to have great reread potential and to get a higher rating upon reread.
Profile Image for Rigel.
292 reviews
February 26, 2022
Had to DNF at 25%. I just couldn't get into the story and felt overall confused. I had no idea what was going on at any one time... almost as if there was a prequel to this book that I had to read before jumping into this one. There is a time when info dumps are needed, and this was one of them.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
339 reviews43 followers
March 17, 2022
ARC audiobook provided in exchange for an honest review.

I really enjoyed how this story was written and the plot was very captivating! I always love getting lost in a different world and this book definitely took me there. The characters were all extremely well developed. I enjoyed the narrator but really wish there had been different voices for the main characters, as sometimes it was difficult to remember who was speaking. I felt the story could’ve been shortened a bit as the audiobook is over 22 hours long, but other than that, I really enjoyed the story and would definitely recommend for anyone looking for an epic fantasy!
Profile Image for Sue.
386 reviews11 followers
Read
May 11, 2022
This book opened up from a tight fist of a beginning, into an ever-expanding kaleidoscope of adventure, seen in fractured bits through each character's eyes. There were distant echoes of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, but this story isn't derivative; it stands on its own, and delivers quite an ending, a fist to the chest that took the breath but woke the heart. I found myself identifying with different characters as the story progressed, and enjoyed the whole story tremendously.
Profile Image for John Wiswell.
Author 41 books428 followers
January 14, 2022
Somebody got some Raymond Chandler in my Caitlin Kiernan. Rich, trippy, and some of Gladstone's most powerful character work to date, all set on a grand journey between broken dimensions.
Profile Image for Kate.
56 reviews1 follower
June 14, 2023
This man writes lesbians so well it’s scary. This is an urban dark fantasy that really evokes a complicated range of emotions in the best way. Like if Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car was a book. I was a huge fan of how Gladstone handled nostalgia, love, friendship, hope, and loss. However, a big part of Gladstone’s craft is the nuanced emotions and experience that don’t really have a name but are somehow beautifully demonstrated through the characters and the plot.
Profile Image for cyn.
247 reviews7 followers
Read
February 18, 2022
thanks to the publishers & netgalley for providing me with an audiobook arc for an honest review!

Last Exit follows Zelda in the aftermath of failing to save the Earth. Ten years ago, Zelda and her college friends, youthful and hopeful, attempted to save the world by traveling through alternate realities (alts) and battling the rot that’s destroying the world. And they failed. They didn’t find a reality better than the one they are living in and they lost Sal, Zelda’s girlfriend and the heart of the group. Those remaining, Ish, Ramon, Sarah and Zelda went their separate ways. For ten years, Zelda stayed on the road to stop the rot from infesting the world but that doesn’t stop it from approaching its end. That is, until one last chance at saving the world arises and Zelda must gather her friends to finish the job once and for all.

Last Exit is told through multiple point-of-views and timelines. Whilst the ‘present’ timeline reads more like a sci-fi-fantasy adventure with a bit of a horror element, the ‘past’ timeline reminds me a bit of dark academia stories. Together, it nicely tells the tale of a group of individuals who are close-knitted in college finding something larger than themselves through mathematics, failed, grew apart and come back together learning to love and support each other all the same again. The number of times the narration go into flashbacks can be a bit too much, but I find them equally interesting to read and provides the necessary context to the character/relationship arc.

The themes of Last Exit are woven into the prose artfully. It’s able to say a lot with a few sentences. There’re a lot of times I had to rewind the audiobook (in a good way!) to fully absorb what it’s trying to say. It’s telling you the character’s story but it’s also telling you something more. It’s about the larger societal ideals and big American ideas. Last Exit is the kind of book you can reread again and again and find something new every time.

Sadly, the story lost me a bit with its slow pacing. Whilst the prose definitely gives me plenty to think about, I just personally prefer my stories to be a bit more fast-paced (especially with how bleak the tone of the story can get).

Profile Image for Jon.
108 reviews25 followers
April 26, 2022
This is a weird one. Last Exit is largely trying to do three things: (1) tell a literary-fiction take on a fantasy adventure, (2) show what happens when the young heroes of a past magical adventure get older and deal with regret, and (3) to make a statement on our inability to collectively imagine better worlds and how that should be remedied. I think it succeeds on some of these, but none in the ways I think would've worked best.

1. I really like Max Gladstone as a writer, and Last Exit is filled with beautiful, introspective writing...but perhaps by too much of it. "How You Lose the Time War" is far more poetically written, but the entire book is much more like a long poem. Last Exit is trying to be an adventure story, and a significant chunk of the actual text of this book is devoted to individual characters thinking about themselves and their takes on the state of the world. I love the idea of a fantasy adventure taking on a different pace and tone, but it doesn't really work here.

2. Where the book does succeed (somewhat) is in its portrayal of aging heroes. Now, they're not that old - it's been 10 years since their adventures as college seniors, which puts them only a few years older than myself, but perhaps past the age where these sorts of stories usually focus. They're consumed with regret - though the reasons for their previous group's dissolution and disillusionment are kept vague until the end, and not in a "I'm interested to learn the answer to this mystery" way, but more a "I'm confused, did they already tell us this?" kind of way - and all trying to deal with their personal failures and the world's darkness in their own ways. We see the practical knowledge and skills that they would have developed from their adventures, and the ways that they have to grapple with their one reality after seeing so many others. But...so much of this book is the characters' internal monologues about their regret, and while the writing is beautiful, the pace is really slow. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in a story that bills itself (both in marketing and in the construction of the book) as a road-trip adventure, it's a problem.

3. Well, here's the big one too. I am pretty tired of stories talking about "making a better world" and then leaving us with only the vague idea that things will get better. We need more books like Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series - books that actually try to construct this better world we should be fighting for. How can a book with the central thesis of "our inability to imagine better worlds needs to be overcome before we can create new ones" only show us terrible worlds and then leave us before we see what's better? I'm not asking people to make perfect utopias, because they will never exist. I'm asking people to imagine a better world and tell us about it, especially if you're a progressive fantasy/sci-fi author!

So yes, this was my least favorite Max Gladstone book, which is unfortunate. I think on paper it has lots of elements I'd enjoy, but in execution the thing took me a long time to read and I never really connected with the story and the characters. It's hard, because I'd love for more literary fiction takes on fantasy adventure, but perhaps in trying to be two things it ended up being neither?
Profile Image for Kathy.
Author 1 book222 followers
February 20, 2022
I wrap up my thoughts about this book in this video.

This genre bending novel (scifi, fantasy, science fantasy, horror?) was wildly inventive, focusing on college friends who each found their knack for distorting probability, lost a friend along the way, and a decade later need to get the band back together to go on one last adventure. There's a diversity of emotional arcs, settings, and characters, and I enjoyed following them through worlds.
Profile Image for Kari.
448 reviews6 followers
January 18, 2022
This book felt like a trippy, genre-bending whirlwind adventure! Gritty sci-fi meets urban fantasy meets modern western with a little bit of horror and Mad Max post-apocalyptic open-road action thrown in for good measure, where there is magic and physics, a mysterious and chilling cowboy, and a race to save the world from the rot that is threatening to take control.

I enjoyed the overall pacing of the book, where there are three distinct speeds as the book progresses: quick action scenes where danger is right behind any given character, contemplative scenes that slow down the book and allow for reflection and for the reader to catch their breath, and flashbacks to tie each character’s past to the present. In this way, the story felt like an action-packed slow burn, which I know seems a bit like an oxymoron, but an enjoyable one!

Gladstone also has a way of writing with beautiful language, and it’s interesting to read a gritty and dark book that’s simultaneously gorgeous in its prose! Because the writing is so dense, I found that it was better in small chunks over time instead of marathon reading to devour it all at once.

While much of the book takes place in alternative worlds, we still are faced with relevant human topics like climate change, political discord, social equality, youthful idealism, and what it means to change the world. The book is bizarre and rich and otherworldly, and I enjoyed it quite a bit!

Thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor for the advanced readers copy!
Profile Image for Laura.
3,785 reviews94 followers
February 27, 2022
My exit was at 15% in: the worlds didn't make sense, the characters were stereotypes and didn't make me care about them.

eARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
124 reviews
September 30, 2022
There are a lot of books that I've finished that I disliked or disagreed with or thought were kind of boring, but I feel like even my most hated books usually have at least something I can take away or learn from them that make the experience worth it.

I can count on one hand the books that I actually regret finishing, books that I thought were a literal waste of my time. Last Exit is now public enemy no. 1 on that list.

Repetitive, vapid, hollow, and full of long, winding, navel-gazing, word-vomit prose that ultimately has nothing to say besides the most empty and basic of platitudes.

It's insane to me that a book this obsessed with introspection and inner monologues and growing up and the passage of time could somehow at the same time have such cookie-cutter, replaceable, robotic, one dimensional characters. Characters with no growth, and no arc, and no chemistry whatsoever in a road trip book without anything that makes a road trip worth reading about.

I'm kind of upset that I didn't DNF at 50 pages when I first wanted to, and then every 50 pages thereafter, but I'm a glutton for punishment and an easy victim of sunk-cost fallacy so I persevered. I shouldn't have.
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