The Crooked Letter

Sean Williams
The Crooked Letter Cover

The Crooked Letter


The first novel in a rather extensive fantasy series, Sean Williams’ The Crooked Letter is half kabbalistic text, half apocalyptic literature, and all around general mind twist. The plot is deceptively simple: one of a pair of twins is murdered while vacationing in Europe, which triggers the apocalypse, and both twins have to do what they can from their respective sides of death to prevent it from destroying all the worlds. In an interview about this novel, Williams jokes that if his attempt to build a fantasy world out of all his research into gnostic and world religions doesn’t pan out, he can always use it to found a new religion. He’s not far off the mark, though I doubt any of the older, self-respecting gnostic cults would have appreciated Williams publishing all of their secrets for the public.

The plot takes a hundred detours through this terrifically complex set of worlds. If the worlds that comprise the afterlife aren’t complicated enough, even our physical world is re-envisioned as a scary realm of barely hidden monsters and deities. There’s a reason Williams calls this book “my Silmarillion” — it’s a guided tour through the worlds of magic and anti-magic, rather than being driven by a dramatic character arc. That’s not necessarily a waste of time, and his world-creation is fascinating enough to hold one’s attention for a while, but after the 300th page one starts yearning for some more common narrative arcs.

I will say that Williams has a talent for good character moments, even if they tend to get buried in the rubble of the end of the world. The love triangle between the twins and a fellow Australian traveler is heart-rending at times, made the more so when she is used as a pawn against them. There is also a prevailing sense of sadness amongst many inhabitants of the afterlife, who worry that their home world will also be destroyed in the wreckage of our world. Even a minor time travel conceit (which I generally hate) works well for the development of some characters.

It’s hard to say how many readers will like this novel. For some, like me, it might be a curiosity that they pick up once a week, spurred on by the gradually unfolding apocalypse. Others might find it entertaining to match up Williams’ characters to figures in ancient mythology (the appendix is helpful for this kind of reader). The descriptions of The Crooked Letter‘s sequels leads me to think that they follow a more popular style of story structure. He admits that this is probably his least successful book, but I can believe that Williams is a perfectly competent writer, and that his subject matter simply got the better of him in this novel. Worth your time if you don’t mind taking your time.