Review: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

cover of The Cipher by Kathe KojaThe Cipher by Kathe Koja
Meerkat Press (September 15th, 2020)
236 pages; $17.48 paperback; $3.99 e-book
Reviewed by Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann

There’s kind of this unofficial debate among readers concerning those who enjoy unlikable characters and those who need protagonists to be tolerable in order to invest in their story.

I like despicable, flawed people. I think protagonists should be as varied as the people we encounter in real life. I don’t need to like people in order to emotionally invest in their stories — sometimes, hating them is just as fun as loving them.

In Kathe Koja’s The Cipher, Nicholas and Nakota are pretty loathsome people. They happen upon a strange, black hole in Nicholas’s apartment building and become obsessed with experimenting with it. Obsession, as we all know, does not end well, and horrible things do happen; mostly because Nakota is self-destructive, impulsive, and a bit of an emotional “black hole” herself. Nicholas is co-dependent and passive. The mystery of their relationship was as fascinating to me as the affectionately named “Funhole.”

This is not my first time reading Koja’s work. I’ve read a few short stories in her collection Velocities, also released by Meerkat Press this year. Some of the stories, like “Baby,” really worked for me, and some of them didn’t. I find Koja’s style a bit jarring and disorienting at times. The narrative in The Cipher head-hops a bit from one character to another. Sometimes I thought I was reading exposition and then realized it was the inner dialog of Nicholas. Almost like a stream of consciousness but too intermittent to get used to it. Little stumbles like that pulled me out of the story on a few occasions.

That being said, Koja’s imagination and particular brand of body horror is on another level.

The dynamic between Nakota and Nicholas and their friend group reminded me of the movie Reality Bites — it really has that whole ’90s twenty/thirtysomething vibe — where everything is sarcastic or done ironically and everyone seems too self-absorbed and unsure of themselves to function.

These are the perfect people to get caught up with a horrible Funhole. There are some memorable, classic horror scenes that will stay with me forever. Cringy sex-stuff, gross-outs, and jaw-dropping moments. The Cipher is a good time.

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