Review: House Hunter by S. T. Cartledge
By Michael Allen Rose
Imagine a world in which a shadowy agency funded by the government pulls strings behind the scenes to create a state of perpetual war and devastation in the name of progress. No no, wait, I don’t mean OUR world, I mean the fascinating and violent world of S. T. Cartledge’s House Hunter. Okay, well there might be some allegory at work here, it’s true, but at least we don’t have enormous buildings wandering around our skeletal cities pounding the hell out of each other with lightning cannons. We save lightning cannons for conflicts in the middle-east.
House Hunter is set in a society where buildings are semi-sentient and capable of much more than simply providing shelter and places for birds to crash into. Using a cerebrum, which is a sacred object imbued with special properties that allow a user to control the structure, houses can engage in combat, protect their users, and transform into a variety of animals, flying machines, weapons and creatures from our mythic lore. House hunters are those who wrangle the most ornery of houses and train them to be peaceful and helpful, something like wildlife conservationists with an added mixer of daring adventurer and the occasional splash of cock-fighting aficionado.
Cartledge introduces us to Imogen, a house hunter who quickly ends up going from a normal life (as normal as house hunting gets, anyway) to being on the run from a syndicate of influential people interested in consolidating their power using the might of the fabled Jabberhouse. Her only ally, a mysterious figure named Ellis who hides a past that leads to some great twists later in the book. From there, Cartledge spins a tale of adventure that takes the characters through ancient jungles, dark labyrinths and mysterious monasteries to try and stop the Association. This is a fun book, the story riddled with battles between bizarre monsters and exciting transfigurations. It’s obvious Cartledge is a fan of cartoon violence and giant monster flicks, as the series of battles in House Hunter hearkens back to battle scenes from the classic Godzilla films, with the addition of smaller figures (such as his human characters) swinging around and shooting lightning cannons, setting traps, and generally adding to the chaos.
The plot is lightning fast and lots of fun. Cartledge wisely sticks mostly to one through-line and though he occasionally riffs on things with slight detours, every chapter serves the central arc and drives toward the conclusion. It’s difficult to diverge from the main story in a book this short and keep things moving in the right direction, so we’re treated to a very tight and direct plot, which works well. The prose itself belies the author’s youth, and reads far better than a typical first novel. It’s obvious Cartledge has a love of language and storytelling, and that voice comes through in House Hunter. There is also a distinctive noir feel to the style of the book, with the gritty feel of urban environments utilized as characterization instead of setting, which is interesting.
I wish that there had been more room for House Hunter to really explore the world that we get glimpses of in the book. There are all sorts of amazing creatures and concepts on the periphery as we read through the book, everything from minotaurs and sprites to the weird insectile facial features and mutations of the citizenry. In that vein, House Hunter walks a line between the world of the familiar in a sort of magical-realism way and all out full-on bizarro. Because of the book being novella length, it always feels like there’s more just outside the reader’s line of sight. Perhaps we’ll see more of this world in future books, as there seems to be a great deal more to see. Intriguing, fascinating and strange, House Hunter is definitely worth picking up, especially for adventure fans and people who want the grime of noir jammed into their weird action stories. I’m also a huge fan of epilogues that cast the story they follow in a new light, or recontextualize pieces and parts of the narrative – something the author uses here to great effect. A great debut from Cartledge, who is sure to rise in the bizarro scene like a flaming house about to cold-cock a skyscraper.