Rating: 3.75 stars
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Unpacking the story Haffling by Caleb James is a daunting task. Not only are there two parallel words running through this story, the hero is truly worried that the second, the fey world, may be a sign of his potential for schizophrenia.
Merely sixteen years old, Alex Nevus cares for his eleven-year-old sister, Alice, and his schizophrenic mother, Marilyn. They live a marginal life at best, in a tiny HUD apartment where food stamps and their mother’s disability checks keep them from being completely destitute. Alex lives life on a tightrope, keeping one step ahead of social services who are a constant threat to his and Alice’s well being.
You see prior to convincing those in power that Marilyn was fit to care for them, he and Alice had been removed from their home once before. The nightmare that was their placement saw Alice molested and Alex commit murder by pushing her assailant down the stairs. However, authorities were convinced that the molester, Sean McGuire, slipped and they were all too happy to hush the matter up when it was found that McGuire had molested countless victims. Unbelievably, this bought Alex some time to get his mother to the point where she could pass inspection and they could remain with her.
But now all hell has broken loose for Marilyn has gone missing—into the very world that she seems to have created from paint and mirrors, and even discarded pills. For strewn all about her walls behind the door that locks from the outside so that Alex can keep track of her, are depictions of the fey world. On the same day Marilyn misses a very important hearing that will ensure her disability checks continue and, more importantly, Alex and Alice will remain safely in her questionable care, Alex meets the boy he has been crushing on for the last two years, Jerod Haynes.
Now Alex is in a race against time that will lead him into an alternate world where his mother is sane, and a power-hungry fairy named May is determined to use him as a bridge between her world and his. For you see, Alex is the Haffling, half fey, half human, and once May gets hold of him she will have the power to rule the world.
I should begin by apologizing for this summary for it does not begin to skim the many layers of this story. Author Caleb James delves into a world where nothing is real and yet all is so very real that it threatens to tear the thin fabric between the worlds he creates for us. Jerod and Alex are two teenage boys who are not only smitten with each other, but are both merely enduring their lives, as if waiting for their real future to begin. Both of them are smart, handsome, and protective of their younger siblings and as characters go, they are sweet and compelling to read about. The incredible cast of secondary characters who comprised everything from siblings to fairies and other fantastical creatures leap off the page in a flurry of descriptive passages that sometimes left my head spinning. It wasn’t that the storyline was difficult to follow, not by any means.
James takes great care to continually bring us back into reality from the fey world and keep his fantasy world in check, giving us a sort of breather from the constant flux of creatures that are the alternate world. However, there were times when I simply lost the flow of the story because we were thrown so deeply into the fantasy. It was hard to believe, for instance, that not only did Jerod see all the creatures and fairies, but also that the experience did not leave him a gibbering mess. Plus, after an incredibly short introduction and next to no build, these boys are professing a deep and abiding love for each other, all this in the span of hours from finally speaking for the first time in their lives. Then there was the idea that Jerod was not out at school. That, in fact, he was going to take a girl to the prom—his girlfriend.
In the chaos and fast-paced action of this story, there is never a time when Jerod and Alex can really assimilate their new found feelings or even discuss what it will mean for them to present as boyfriends when they return to reality. For me, this made the incredible ending of the story so fantastical that I had a terrifically hard time believing it. There was such promise to this story. Alex and Jerod were simply lovely characters and I wanted to see their relationship grow and develop. Instead, the focus was turned time and again to the fey world and the need for a resolution to the problem that an unleashed May would cause for the world. I felt like there was too many plot points banging around in this story and none really got its due. The idea that the kids somehow managed to escape social services, the love that springs up between Alex and Jerod, the fantastical ending that plummets the fey world headlong into the fog that will ultimately consume it…and on and on and on. It became just one event after another with each barely getting resolved or worse, getting resolved off the page and in an unexplained manner, leaving us wondering what had happened.
There is no doubt in my mind that author Caleb James is able to write a fascinating, psychological fantasy and create some really outstanding characters. However, I feel that his story, Haffling, needed more focus, less crowded subplots, and more investment in Alex’s reality. I am eager to see what this author produces next for there is some fine story telling ability here, it simply needed a good paring down to become a truly great story.