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Worlds Without End Blog

Review: Fair Coin by E. C. Myers Posted at 10:30 AM by Jeremy Frantz


Fair CoinFair Coin by E.C. Myers
Published in 2012 by Pyr
Hardcover – 285 pages

“911, what is your emergency?”
“My mother took some pills.”

Fair Coin begins with Ephraim finding his mother after what appears to be a suicide attempt.  Why?  Earlier that day she’d identified his dead body at the hospital and she even had his personal effects that she’d taken home with her, his wallet and library card (both of which he still had in his pocket) and a very strange coin.

When he learns from an anonymous note in his locker that the coin has the ability to grant wishes, Ephraim wastes no time using it to help his alcoholic Mother.  But he also approaches the coin with a caution and disbelief that has you thinking he’s read this book before.  He suspects all the likely problems and ethical issues.  He doubts the intentions of the note writer.

As you might expect, that doesn’t stop him from continuing to use the coin for the less-than-noble purposes of positioning himself and his best friend Nathan in the good graces of the girls of their respective dreams, among other private benefits (BTW, where were all the cute teenage librarians when I was in high school?!).  When successive coin flips begin to change his world in unpredictable and undesirable ways, Ephraim gets really, really cold feet.

Ephraim begins a quest to figure out both what the heck is going on and how the heck to change it all back.  When the answer to the former proves unsolvable, Ephraim turns to the question of the latter which he figures is easy enough to solve if he can just be more careful with his wishes.  And you can just take a guess how well that works.

So, you are probably totally shocked to learn that Ephraim does a pretty terrible job of answering either question and it’s not until he begins to dig into the identity of his dead double that he begins to uncover anything approaching the truth.  In fact, it turns out there is another mystery figure (or two) out there following Ephraim around causing some pretty serious trouble.  Their inevitable encounter leads to only more trouble but also the truth about the coin… and the multiverse.

Okay, so there is some pretty serious nostalgic/referential appeal going on here.  I get that, I like it, and judging by this year’s Hugo Awards, it’s pretty entertaining for a good deal of other SF readers too.  But, and you have probably already picked up on this, there is also a pretty significant formulaic appeal to the narrative… which is great!

Wait… what?!

Yes.  Everyone likes a good formulaic and predictable narrative right?  Oh, not so much?  Well, no worries, it’s not exactly as simple as that.

The first 100+ pages of Fair Coin are told in a way that is so – the best way I can describe it is – normal.  But I also say it is great, because as it turns out this is just a (really effective) ploy to lure us into a familiar place before dropping a series of bombs on us.  Fair Coin begins with pretty standard fair: angst-y teenagers, secret and humongous unrequited high school crushes, absentee parents, secret/special powers, all that.  Some of this was great for the nostalgic effect, reminding me of so many books I read as a young reader and other times, some of this really and honestly underwhelmed me… for a little while.

Yes, at the beginning the nostalgic/referential appeal is probably good enough to propel the story, but I had been seriously lured in by the copy from the back cover which included a very positive quote from one of my favorites, N. K. Jemisin.  But my enthusiasm could only handle so many of the usual YA tropes in one book.

So was it great or not?  Well, in my opinion, it was great, because just when I’d about had enough, Myers started breaking-down everything he spent so long building up.  Shortly after his formulaic high point, when nearly halfway through the book he practically shouts at his readers that “this book is pretty much just the monkey’s paw story that you already know”, Myers reveals that there was actually a hell of a lot more “chewy theoretical physics” (to borrow from Jemisin) behind Ephraim’s “coin” and figuring out how to make Jena like him (and then stop liking him!) is the very least of his problems.

Maybe this drawn out tactic won’t work for some of you, but I had been completely sucked in by those nostalgic elements and Myers had totally fooled me into thinking I was reading any other YA title, so when the reality of the coin breaks the story down to the point that it is unclear what universe Ephraim is even in anymore, I had to appreciate Myers’ commitment to the lie.

The other aspect that really turns Fair Coin around is that Myers coincides this break-down with a pretty intense ratcheting-up of the darkness factor and the abject horror of being a teenager.  Geez, just consider this passage in which Ephraim and Nate end up in a completely uninhabited world during their experiments with the coin:

“Eph and I came here a lot,” Nate said.  “We hiked all through this forest.  It goes on forever.  We’ve never see anyone else here, but we found signs of American Indians here and there.  There’s a burial mound three miles north.  Eph was collecting arrowheads and old stuff like that.  We think they all must have died or moved on.”  He sighed.  “This is one of my favorite places, in any universe.”

“Thanks for sharing it,” Ephraim said.  He agreed that the place had appeal, but he was unnerved at the idea that in this universe, he’d never even existed.  Everything he knew, everyone he loved, was missing—and the world seemed better for it.

Chapter 26 (Emphasis added)

E. C. MyersSo, I guess I should have expected some pretty heavy material to resurface after Ephraim finds his Mother passed out in the first sentence of the book, but believe me when I tell you, Myers leaves no stone unturned when it comes to reveling in the really shitty parts about being a teenager.

But I can’t have you thinking Fair Coin is all death and brooding teenage angst.  It’s just mostly death and brooding teenage angst.  The remainder includes some stiff but working dialogue, goofy referential humor, questions about the multiverse and did I mention hot teenage librarians?

Fair Coin had me back in elementary school discovering the Goosebumps series (remember that?) and so many others that were, now that I think about it, probably my very earliest tastes of SF and horror.  Moreover, Myers uses that penchant for nostalgia to great effect.  Considering the success of Jo Walton’s, Among Others, I think people should probably give E. C. Myers a shot.

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