Nothing More Certain: A Review
NOTHING MORE CERTAIN (Familiar Spirits #3; standalone)
Romance, Urban Fantasy
male/male; bisexual, gay
Content notes (SPOILERS): references to a bad/neglectful/uninvolved parent (father); abandonment issues; feelings of being worthless/unlovable/not deserving of love; alcohol use; references to underage drinking; minor reference to bullying; death (talk of; personification; past parental death; off-screen deaths in a hospice of unnamed characters); concern over a character’s possible heart condition; coming out scene; undertones of kink; sex on the page; ghosts; witchcraft.
In one episode of the very straight, very white, very cis male-centric first season of HBO’s True Detective, a character recounts a past exchange: “I said something about forgiveness,” she recalls, “and he said that there was no such thing as forgiveness, that people just have short memories.”
In Nothing More Certain, R. Cooper’s third entry in the urban fantasy world of Familiar Spirits (which of course is not straight at all, nor especially white, or entirely cis), a story about a lonely human who is in love with a witch who loves him right back (but the human doesn’t believe that the witch does or could love him, nor does he know that the witch is a witch at all, as well as something else, something important and powerful), characters have very long memories.
Emery, in particular, the lonely human through whom we experience this short novel, seems to be forever stuck at the crossroad between forgiving and forgetting. He nurtures his unforgiveness almost as lovingly as he, a modern-day Persephone, tends to the flora of Trinity Creek, and though he’s surrounded by the forgotten, as he also cares for the town’s graveyard with its long-abandoned graves and ghosts that are “desperate for company,” he’s unable to forget. And he’s sure, so sure, that he’s the only one with such a long memory; that he, he alone, is forgettable, or that someone would at least want to forget him.
Ezra, vlogger and crafter extraordinaire, was Emery’s first love, his first kiss. The unforgiven and, naturally, the unforgettable. He’s a special, special witch who walks the earth toting gifts of blankets, tea, and (hilariously bad) food. He carries such a burden on his young shoulders, yet his smiles are always at the ready, and though when they were younger he hurt an already wounded Emery so badly, with a teenager’s carelessness and by keeping secrets he couldn’t divulge, he’s been trying hard to get his childhood best friend back, the friend and love who was everything to him, the surest of things, if you will, and what Ezra himself is.
I’m always conscious of the fact that when I (try to) talk about books I may end up doing them, and their authors, a disservice. I won’t ever be able to just say, “This is a good book! Buy it and read it immediately!” or to give an orderly list of reasons why I felt how I felt about it. Partly, it’s that opinions and tastes are personal, and objectivity is a lie (“You NEED this book” will never come out of my mouth); partly, it’s that most books, books that I consider “good,” are difficult for me to talk about in such sure, meager terms. I like to dissect a book, no matter its genre, content, or intention; I want to open it up, get into it, and know and learn and discover what’s magical about it, get out of it as much as I possibly can. Good, bad—they are sterile words which mean very little. Because books are love spells, the way Ezra thinks of love spells, and so they deserve to be treated (and loved, or even disliked) with the same care and meticulousness.
R. Cooper’s books are such books, for me. Her writing can’t help but lend itself to multiple re-reads, both because it unfailingly brings me comfort, and because I find it’s often so symbolic and layered that it invites one to come back and dig into it. Her stories feel deeply queer, too, in a way most m/m (or f/f) romance does not (Jericho Candelario’s Gay Debut may be the best example of this), and they seem to embrace bodies and their shapes in a way that most romance, regardless of genders or relationships, does not. She rarely lingers on society’s arbitrary yet specific standards of attractiveness (one of my favorite sentences describes Ezra simply as “beautiful in a way that only had a tiny bit to do with how he looked”), or on what’s supposed to be sexy and erotic (economical descriptions of Ezra’s bare hands or exposed collarbone do more to paint a picture of Emery’s desire, and for me, do it more effectively, than lengthy ones of six-packs and tight butts). It seems to me that Cooper, at least in her most recent works, tries to guide the reader’s mind’s eye the way a photographer would a viewer’s eyes, and this makes me, a reader who doesn’t experience attraction, feel welcome. It’s as if I’m allowed to translate the characters’ own language of desire into one I can come closer to understand.
Moreover, in our current fast times, with the immediacy of Twitter or the dominion of a certain store and its all-you-can-read program, which seem to be forcing fictional stories to be delivered and consumed quickly (and I too am at fault of consuming books as I would potato chips), to then just as quickly sink into oblivion, Cooper’s books warrant a slower, leisurely, savoring, more patient read. (And though at times it can feel as if she’s sharing a secret with her characters that none of them want the reader to discover, if the reader doesn’t lack that patience they will be let in on it.)
Which isn’t to say that Nothing More Certain (or her other books) is not a straightforward romance novel: it is.
It’s a forever (as it’s Ezra’s nature) love story between two young men who have been in love for half of their lives and have pined after each other for as long, but between whom there’s the hurt of unrevealed selves and teenage foolishness, Emery’s stubbornness and Ezra’s inadvertence. Yet there’s also such courage and longing: Emery, who could never fear Ezra, and his willingness and readiness to cheer and rescue Ezra (who may need the former but not the latter), even when he’s angry at him!; and Ezra’s determination to just make things right, to get Emery to accept an apology and see himself through Ezra’s (and the town’s) eyes, to see how extraordinary he is, that he should allow himself to be revered, that loyalty and devotion are such rare currencies.
Really, it’s the best kind of quiet romance novel: they pine so much, and all they want is to feed each other and keep each other warm and safe and loved, perhaps share a beautiful silence as one grows flowers and the other brings old objects back to life while in his socks. (And maybe have sex in a cemetery. #GothCouple)
But I think it’s also a book about living with grief (in its amplitude—that is, tracing back to the root of the word) as it sits on one’s shoulder and never leaves it: it’s about burdens (of memory, of mistakes, of things done and actions not taken), about mourning (literal absences, time lost, a future one wishes for and might not get to live, love not received and what that’ll do to someone), about feeling such a heaviness and a sadness that all one can do is “managing to dress yourself,” or to rest for a few minutes under a tree. None of this makes it a sad book, per se, although its characters do carry a melancholy with them (Emery, who as a child had hoped the alleged resident ghost in his house was real and liked him; Ezra, who never gets to be selfish—and won’t that take a toll—and is touched and delighted at Emery offering his guiding hand), but to help lighten it there are flashes of dark humor, bite-sized candy, the loveliest mom, a very cute (pardon me, murderous) owl, and a rather possessive cat. Plus tons and tons of yarn.
And there are those layers of meanings and symbolism (and Easter eggs, of a sort), some obvious, some wonderfully less so—like sharing a first kiss beneath a weeping willow; like Emery’s beloved honeysuckle; like wolf-light; like Old Hollywood films; like wormwood on someone’s porch; like winter and spring, as the former gets impatient and the latter will always return; like a very special cider—and little read-too-fast-and-you’ll-miss-them nuances that imbue the story with emotional texture (“‘Emery Elward,’ she said softly, in the precise way Ezra often did.”), not to mention an honesty about love which seldom has a place in romancelandia.
Cooper doesn’t excel at plot, which tends to be minimal, and often the entirety of the conflict hinges on misunderstandings or miscommunication. Neither I would personally consider a flaw: for one, context (and/or my own nature) makes it reasonably believable (understanding and empathizing with who these characters are and where their hurt and insecurity come from is key); for another, I’m definitely the kind of reader who loves to figuratively sit in a room with characters as they communicate badly, or ponder and muse for any number of pages. Plot is overrated, anyway. (Don’t @ me. Or whatever the kids say.) And whether she’s writing about witches and their familiars, firefighters, handymen and their bakers, mystery writers, librarians, werewolves and fairies, her characters (and their internal plot) I’ve found to be always excellent, and each of them feels very specifically hers and hers alone.
As a novel featuring witches, ghosts, and death, Nothing More Certain (and the entire Familiar Spirits universe) gets most of its delightful eeriness from its setting, yet there’s always a bit of otherworldliness, a bit of out-of-placeness to Cooper’s stories even when she’s writing ordinary-world contemporary romances; I’ve yet to figure out why that is, exactly, but it’s one of the reasons I always come back for more. To me, Cooper’s books are like Emery’s protective ghosts: for a few hours, they chase the ugliness of our real world out, they make me feel looked out for, and they even tuck me in before wishing me goodnight.