Review: “The Cipher,” Kathe Koja

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve heard Kathe Koja’s horror novels are excellent, but until now I’d never read one. I absolutely loved The Cipher. Nakota and Nicholas are semi-sorta-sometimes a thing (or at least they sleep together, and Nicholas believes he loves Nakota). But what really draws them together is the mysterious hole to nowhere in the storage room downstairs from Nicholas’s flat. Nakota is determined to experiment with it, using bugs and then a mouse. Something happens to all of them–the bugs mutate strangely before dying, and the mouse… well, we just won’t go there. When Nicholas’s hand goes into the hole, a mysterious sore appears on his palm. They’re able to get some footage of what’s down there using a camcorder on a string, and the results are literally mind-bending. Nakota uses the video tape to draw in more and more people, even when there end up being multiple factions of people fighting over access to the hole. As for Nakota herself, she hopes for a more radical transformation courtesy of whatever’s going on in there.

Wow, the characters. Okay. Phew! Nakota is positively repellant. She uses people. She manipulates people. In fact, I daresay she does not bother to interact with anyone unless she is using and manipulating them. She knows Nicholas loves her and uses that to twist him around her little finger. She’s calculatedly vicious. As for Nicholas, he isn’t Mr. Perfect himself. He loves Nakota in his own weird way, mostly by letting her walk all over him. He spends most of his time drunk. If Nakota had been the point of view character, she would have been too unlikable and obnoxious. Nicholas is perfect as the PoV character, because while he’s no angel, he’s better enough to be engaging despite (or maybe because of) his flaws. Both characters constantly grate against one another. It galls Nakota that Nicholas is transforming when she is not. Nearly all of the characters in here are deeply flawed people.

The flow of the narrative–told from Nicholas’s point of view–is somewhat stream-of-consciousness-like. There’s a lot of exploration of Nicholas’s thoughts and ruminations, and yet I wasn’t bored at all once I got into the story. I never felt like we were retreading too much ground, or that there wasn’t a need for it, or that it slowed things down. Nicholas’s thoughts made things more interesting instead of less.

My only (totally minor) objection is that I wanted just a little bit more at the end. I felt like it ended a bit abruptly. The ending was still very good; I just felt it wasn’t quite as amazing as the rest of the book.

Content note: Sex, animal harm/death, suicidality, and the amount of violence and gore you can expect from pretty much any horror novel.

We’re all our worst best friends.

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