[Review] Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

Located in a nameless desert somewhere in the great American Southwest, Night Vale is a small town where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are all commonplace parts of everyday life. It is here that the lives of two women, with two mysteries, will converge.

Nineteen-year-old Night Vale pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is given a paper marked “KING CITY” by a mysterious man in a tan jacket holding a deer skin suitcase. Everything about him and his paper unsettles her, especially the fact that she can’t seem to get the paper to leave her hand, and that no one who meets this man can remember anything about him. Jackie is determined to uncover the mystery of King City and the man in the tan jacket before she herself unravels.

Night Vale PTA treasurer Diane Crayton’s son, Josh, is moody and also a shape shifter. And lately Diane’s started to see her son’s father everywhere she goes, looking the same as the day he left years earlier, when they were both teenagers. Josh, looking different every time Diane sees him, shows a stronger and stronger interest in his estranged father, leading to a disaster Diane can see coming, even as she is helpless to prevent it.

Diane’s search to reconnect with her son and Jackie’s search for her former routine life collide as they find themselves coming back to two words: “KING CITY”. It is King City that holds the key to both of their mysteries, and their futures … if they can ever find it.

Genre(s): Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy
Series: Welcome to Night Vale #1
Published by Harper Perennial on October 25, 2015

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

➤ Representation (click to show)

bi/pan MC, biracial MC, MLM minor characters, M/M background relationship

The first time I read this book, back in January 2020, I had only listened to a handful of the podcast episodes and so had very little knowledge of the WTNV characters or lore, and correspondingly little idea of what to expect from the book. Welcome to Night Vale is weird and unsettling and clever and confusing and unique; I ended my original review in this way: “IDK, hopefully that all made sense. Because this book didn’t really, but in a mostly-good way.”

Fully two years later, I reread it after listening through Episode 1: Pilot up to Episode 76: An Epilogue — the latter of which, by the way, is somehow both spoiler-free and substantive, enjoyable regardless of whether you’ve read (or recall) the book; it’s a genuinely impressive balancing act.

This kind of duality is characteristic of the WTNV franchise: while it’s not facetious or flippant, there’s plenty of humor and bright spots amidst the (sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes both) darkness. My threshold for horror is extremely low, as is my tolerance for thinly-veiled sociopolitical satire, but neither is overdone here.

Night Vale is such an atmospheric setting, with its strange and specific quirks, which is really the standout element of the book. Although generally the characters are a primary factor that make or break a narrative for me, with Welcome to Night Vale I honestly found the “friendly desert community” as a whole to be more compelling than the protagonists, who are likable but somewhat forgettable; the plot was also engaging, though the radio broadcast segments were a bit distracting — I read them all in Cecil’s actual voice and automatically tried to contextualize them as part of a hypothetical WTNV episode — and, again, somewhat forgettable. I remembered absolutely nothing from my first read; the only context I had going in came from the podcast.

I think what it comes down to, for me at least, is that there’s just so much going on in and around Night Vale and its residents; that works well for a serial podcast with countless story arcs to explore, but it’s much harder to capture in a limited novel. Particularly when the not-so-plucky protagonists are more passive in their adventure than the Voice of Night Vale, who’s supposed to be impartially reporting the news but often finds himself an accidental hero. I’m not saying Cecil Gershwin Palmer is the heart of Night Vale, but … Cecil Gershwin Palmer is the heart of Night Vale, and WTNV just doesn’t feel the same when we’re not seeing it filtered through his descriptions.

4 stars

3 thoughts on “[Review] Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

  1. ” I’m not saying Cecil Gershwin Palmer is the heart of Night Vale, but … Cecil Gershwin Palmer is the heart of Night Vale, and WTNV just doesn’t feel the same when we’re not seeing it filtered through his descriptions”

    This is exactly how I felt when I first read this book, but I didn’t know how to put it in words! I also knew of WTNV through the podcast first. Years ago, I actually was able to see a live WTNV performance with a friend of mine and it was a lot of fun.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll be honest, I was skeptical about going to a live podcast show, but it ended up being great! I’d definitely recommend going if they end up stopping at a city near you in the future. Cecil is such a talented voice actor.

        Liked by 1 person

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