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Greenleaf Book Group
Altered Estates
English manor mystery meets magic mushrooms Kris Robinson, a scenarist with temporary drug-induced amnesia, enters a live-action manor mystery as a character in order to test his game, unaware that he wrote it. In the scenario, Kris learns his long-lost uncle left him a fabulous English estate. When he arrives there, he finds the butler trying to steal his inheritance, the caretaker’s precocious grandson expounding on Jungian synchronicity, the chef spouting palindromes, and a cast of other madcap characters with ulterior motives. But the test doesn’t go as planned. Instead of wearing off, the drugs trigger a direct connection with the collective unconscious, manifested by disembodied spirits or “Storytellers” who are eager to assist Kris in experiencing his forgotten adventure again. Kris (and readers) must solve puzzles in order to progress through the story, encountering talking plants, moving paintings, and comedic vignettes that stretch the boundaries of perception. When Kris does snap out of it, he finds himself in Camelot, a British theme part in Japan offering the ultimate immersive experience. The written equivalent of a live-action role-playing game, Altered Estates is a psychedelic ride full of mind-bending scenes and cleverly hidden Easter eggs. For those interested in circular time, split brain functions, and futuristic technology.
This epic, prankish, psilocybin-laced game of a novel is less a puzzle box than a puzzle shipping container, a massive world of its own double stuffed with clues, portents, twists, surprises, and moments where a reader barely has time to wonder, “Wait, that’s odd, isn’t it?” before another door locks, another character behaves bizarrely, a statue of Shakespeare comes to life, a news report about dognappers intrudes, or half the cast kills several pages playing a game where they dream up new names for pubs. So it goes in Mathison’s massive debut, a book that aspires to do to Myst-like interactive puzzle games what LITRpg titles do for World of Warcraft. Told in second person like an Infocom text adventure, Mathison’s story, centered on a recently fired protagonist being told he’s unexpectedly inherited the most eccentric of estates, offers a relentless series of riddles, enigmas, palindromes, Easter eggs, and literal escape rooms, as the narrator explores the great house, meets its staff, and must prove the legitimacy of his inheritance.

Of course, this is all complicated by scheming staffers and the possibility, laid out in a prologue, that the narrator is undergoing some hallucinogenic experiment. Despite that and the story’s frequent evocation of exploratory games, Mathison favors traditional one-thing-after-another storytelling and scenecraft, with the always-odd events, conversations, pageantry, and moments of puzzle-solving related in crisp, engaging language.

The fun of Altered Estates is in digging into the secrets of Arthur Hanover’s mad estate, a place that crams centuries of British history, including a pub and countless priceless paintings, all under one roof and brought to life through technology inspired by amusement parks. Still, the novel’s protracted length, frequent asides, and general lack of urgency mean that the satisfying final chapters, which pay off much that came before, will prove a challenge for many readers to reach—an inevitability the narrator winks at, recalling reading that Myst, like A Brief History of Time, “are works that only fifteen percent of purchasers actually finish.”

Takeaway: Epic puzzle-box novel bursting with riddles, mysteries, and surprise.

Comparable Titles: Blake Crouch, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A