I'm not going to lie; I spent most of the reading of this novel in a state of annoyed confusion, and, having finished it, I'm still not sure it it counts as a success. By which I mean I'm not sure if annoyed confusion is what Adams was going for, if that were the deliberate effect he intended. Were this not explcitly a genre novel published by a genre house (in this case, Angry Robot Books), I would be more inclined to say that it was the author's intention, in a time-honored Literary Fictional way.
But since it is genre fiction, marketed and discussed as such, I am inclined to call this a flaw in that it got in the way of my enjoyment of a fine, pulpy mystery-adventure tale.
In the way of lots of stories, The World House spends about the first 20-25% of itself in introducing its characters, plucking them from the real world and teaming them up. This is in itself fine; it's something 'most every story has to do even when it is not, as here, sucking its characters -- and by extension its readers -- into a nightmarish, homicidal version of Wonderland. So we accept a few changes in perspective, a little disconnection among what seem tubigonnabe multiple protagonists' very different origins and narrative arcs, trusting that each one's presence will be justified, understandable and in some way necessary to the greater story as a whole because that is generally how most novels work; any novelist who wants to publish and sell more than one work obeys Chekov's rule about guns (and characters as guns).
And Adams does that. He does that extraordinarily well, with cleverness and originality and imagination and flair. And surprises! He is a bit of a prestidigitator, is Mr. Adams. He misdirects us into not noticing that someone is both more and less than he seems by distracting us with another possibility, about which we are sure we are right but are soon delighted to be wrong. We think we are in one kind of plot but find that we have been in another, too, all along. Bravo!
So why then did I spend so much of my reading time being annoyed?
A lot of the problem lies, I think, with the typographical presentation rather than the writing. And maybe just a little bit with the timing of when and alongside what I read this book -- though I won't say Adams is completely off the hook for this.
Once The World House has plucked its cast from around the world, the novel divides them up into three teams and follow each's adventures through a perilous phantasmagoria that the publishers doubtless saw as the novel's real strength. Rarely has a book been so aptly titled: the House is a world and has everything a world might have within its constantly transforming rooms and corridors. The bathroom contains an ocean on which a ship sails. The library is straight out of Jorge Luis Borges if the master had thought to include giant, menacing bookworms. The greenhouse contains a jungle teeming with hostile wildlife and savage cannibals who are not, though, a primitive tribe by origin; they are people like our heroes except in that they have failed where our heroes might presumably succeed. Though their still neing alive is maybe a kind of success for those savages, for the House is actively bent on killing its inhabitants in an infinite variety of terrifying and imaginative ways. Traveling through all of this with our teams is freakishly delightful -- except the reader doesn't always know with which team she is, in what room, from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes from passage to passage.
Were this a film (and it would make a fine one), we would at least have jump cuts to warn us that we are shifting locales and teams, but this is a book and a book lacks such easy visual cues unless the folks responsible for its layout and design put them there, or the author confines each chapter to the experiences of one character or team (here is where maybe the timing of my reading worked against The World House, because of course that is what George R.R. Martin does). In at least the Epub edition of the book, the designers/publishers have not done the former, and Adams has not done the latter; without warning, in the space between paragraphs (that are not even separated by an extra carriage return or line of asterisks) we change scenes and teams. And since the characters are more than a bit ill-defined and two-dimensional, most of the time the reader is unaware of the shift until it is suddenly a bookworm instead of a headhunter menacing Tom no wait it's Miles is he the professor or the barfly I forget and damn it, I'm ripped right out of the story and noticing that the characters are kind of cardboard and that all of the craft and imagination went into designing the House and I'm not in my happy reader's trance anymore and I go off in a huff and read something else for a while.
Which is not something a writer wants. Or a publisher.
Look, it's not as if I picked up this book expecting a case study in nuanced character development. It was pretty obviously pulp, and I'll forgive pulp for cardboard characters if it shows me something else, if it keeps me so entertained and curious that I don't notice the cardboard. Which arguably should have been the case here for the reasons I have already outlined. The House is cool as hell! And while this story has a satisfying conclusion, it also demands a sequel, which I already have on my device because I subscribed to Angry Robot's big ebook package.** I will now approach that sequel (next year, for this is my 100 books/100 authors year, GRRM notwithstanding) somewhat jaundiced, though, unless I am somehow assured that this grievous flaw has been addressed.
Despite this flaw though, I would recommend the book to friends. After I'd warned them of the problem. I think that might arm them against the annoyance I felt, as one who knows there are rakes all over the lawn doesn't repeatedly get a dowel in the face.
*And various points in time; we wind up with a Victorian explorer, a semi-flapper from the 1930s, a few more modern characters including a barfly and the exotic dancer he loves and a young Spaniard plucked from the midst of his country's civil war, etc. Very much a ragtag mismatched cavalcade like we have seen many times before, best executed for my money by the great Clifford D. Simak in Special Deliverance long ago.
**Very shrewd of them to stick the sequel but not the original in the package and then offer a respectable one-time discount on the back catalog to subscribers; I bought this and a few others on the strength of AR's reputation and of friends' glowing reviews of particular titles.