Thank you to Penguin Random House / NetGalley for a copy of The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester in exchange for an honest review.
Sam Sylvester has long collected stories of half-lived lives — of kids who died before they turned nineteen. Sam was almost one of those kids. Now, as Sam’s own nineteenth birthday approaches, their recent near-death experience haunts them. They’re certain they don’t have much time left …
But Sam’s life seems to be on the upswing after meeting several new friends and a potential love interest in Shep, their next-door neighbor. Yet the past keeps roaring back — in Sam’s memories and in the form of a thirty-year-old suspicious death that took place in Sam’s new home.
Sam can’t resist trying to find out more about the kid who died and who now seems to guide their investigation. When Sam starts receiving threatening notes, they know they’re on the path to uncovering a murderer. But are they digging through the past or digging their own future grave? – (from the publisher)
For lack of a better term, this is undoubtedly an #ownvoices novel. Author Maya MacGregor shares many of Sam’s identities; they are both nonbinary, queer and autistic. MacGregor likely poured many of their own lived experiences into The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, especially concerning autism.
Interestingly, I had watched this panel about writing neurodiversity in Sci-Fi/Fantasy right before picking up this novel. Though I’d watched it to better understand how to incorporate my neurodivergence into my writing, the panel helped me engage with this book.
One of the things most panelists agreed upon is they don’t like to label their characters as neurodivergent. Doing so makes them feel like they’re writing for a neurotypical audience. Me? I like things labeled. I want to know an author intended what I’m seeing.
However, after reading The Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester, I see what they’re saying. There are many examples of Sam telling the reader, “This is what X is like for autistic people.”
My intention here isn’t to be gatekeep-y for an identity that isn’t mine (autism). I find art aimed at the “in-crowd” more effective. Even if it’s not a world I know, I love getting a glimpse into someone else’s life.
That’s not to say I don’t think Sam shouldn’t have explicitly mentioned they are autistic; on the contrary, I think it works perfectly when they tell people within the story.
For the reader, however, I think moments such as how Sam introduces themself — “My name is Sam. My pronouns are they/them” — tells us so much more about Sam. Much more than their asides about “X = autism.” There are many lovely beats and moments like that throughout the book. They work beautifully. I wanted more of them and less of the latter.
Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that talks about IEPs (individualized educational plans), so hallelujah!
I have one tiny minor nitpick more, and this isn’t directed solely at MacGregor, but any author writing in a dialect that isn’t their own. When I read an American writing UK English, and I see “on the weekend” instead of “at the weekend,” I cringe. There are similar things in The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester — Americans do not say, “I get on with someone.”
OK, but what about the plot?
How lovely to have a book where the central character holds so many marginalized identities, but that’s not the central plot point! The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester is a supernatural mystery at its core. The way the town is so Stepford Wives-ish about the mystery is the icing on the cake; it’s hilarious.
Even though the whodunit is obvious, it doesn’t detract from the book. The way Sam and their relationships grow through solving the mystery is the true win. I also loved that some of the supernatural stuff was never explained; it just was. (I’m seriously craving some popcorn now… )
The choice to make Sam 18 years old worked well (though my brain did make me confirm that Oregon has “close-in-age” consent laws). That extra bit of legal independence made many of Sam’s choices and challenges make more sense.
Should you read it?
Heck yeah! Despite my tiny nitpicks, I couldn’t put The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester down. It’s a quick read, and you’re sure to get something out of it. But please, read the content warnings below. It’s quite a doozy in that regard.
On a final note, I’m a sucker for accepting, amazing parents, and Sam’s dad really is the best, as all the teen characters repeatedly mention.
Content warnings: Anaphylaxis due to allergies, attempted murder, bullying, hate crimes, gun violence, misgendering, murder, outing, panic attacks, passive suicidal ideation, strangulation, queerphobia.
The Many Half-Lived Lives of Sam Sylvester is out May 3. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore or library! 📚