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Three Eight One

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Aliya Whiteley’s novel: Three Eight One is an immensely odd book. It is a story within a story; one of which is set hundreds of years in the future, 2314; while, the other is set in the summer of 2024. A person by the name of Rowena Savalas spends most of their days sorting through archives, now that the world has too much information about history, rather than too little. It is during this time that The Dance of the Horned Road is discovered, from 2024, the Age of Riches. In this narrative, Fairly has set upon herself, a coming of age quest to follow the Horned Road wherever it may lead-while being pursued by her Breathing Man. The Breathing Man is the only constant, and ominous presence throughout her journey, as she tries to become an adult, and to understand…something, anything about the world or herself.

Though this story is unique and interesting, in the pursuit of trying to delve into self-discovery, learning, the confusing circles of thought and actions while trying to better oneself, the narrative became too repetitive and at times was difficult to understand or follow.
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That was a wild ride! I am honest, there were points I wanted to give up, because I couldn’t make sense of what I was reading, It was a journey for me too and when I reached the last quarter of the book I didn’t want to part with Fairly and Rowena. Both grew close to me and I didn’t want to let them go. I felt more complete with them being around even though it seemed like I didn’t get the big meaning behind, I just wanted to stick around a bit longer and watch them.

That was a wild ride! This book has many unexpected twists and turns, and even more for me as a non-native speaker! I like when science-fantasy embeds in concepts and social realities from the present. As a reader, you simply accept certain circumstances. Like the fact that there is a culture that obviously lives isolated from the rest of society in a very hermetic, small circle that sends its young people on a journey to adulthood, in which they pass through cities that seem to function like our big cities, but are nevertheless also different. Telephones are not called telephones and certain facts simply have to be deduced from the context.

But things got really wild when the narrative voice of Rowena, who comments on the document about Fairly and her journey, intervenes in the story and takes up questions and thoughts in the form of footnotes, which you find throughout the document. So it is somehow a commented story that we, as readers, in the third instance also comment on internally and try to understand. Both voices, Rowena's and Fairly's, are searching for their place in the world in which they live and I can tell you that this documentary, this adventure report and autobiography have a wide appeal. You are inevitably drawn into the stories. The more abstruse and opaque it gets and the more you try to find clarity, the more nebulous it seems to become. At a certain point, I simply stopped trying to find a deep and philosophical meaning and just let it happen, I just read and waited with anticipation to see what would happen and in the end, it became clear.

 I don't want to dive deep into the content, because this book wants to be experienced! There are so many funny comments from Rowena and these parallel stories in particular made it feel at times as if you were reading in between Fairly and Rowena, which had a magic all of its own. The book had some really strange moments and again, I've seen this before in some of the author's other books and for me it's these oddities that make the stories so appealing. For me, they break with convention and create space for reflection or simply wonder. 381 was an exciting pilgrimage, not only for Fairly and Rowena, but also for me.

If you made it this far: hello. I’m waving at you. Both hands. And read this book! It’s worth it!
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I originally started off this review thinking 3⭐ rating, then realized I was rambling on and on about what I read and how I felt about it. The fact that it occupied so much space in my head is worth an extra ⭐!

Three Eight One is definitely one of those books that straddles fantasy and sci-fi. It's told in dual POV, but in a very unique style. One POV (Fairly) as something like a journal or memoir detailing a fantasy quest trope. The other POV (Rowena) is footnotes or annotations to the first and is clearly set in a more technologically advanced future. I read each footnote as it occured, but also went through them again at the end for a more cohesive perspective.

As a general read, I'm not sure I would recommend it for everyone. It can be slow paced and confusing. I kept thinking "WTF is going on?" the entire time I read it. But, I had to get to the end because I was hoping for clarity. One of the footnotes actually reads...

"Basically, I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m lost in history. Help me."

You and me both honey!

I had to look it up, but 381 is apparently called an angel number and means I Love You...3 words, 8 letters, 1 meaning. It also has a lot of connotations in numerology, astrology, etc. I won't go into to them other than to say that Whiteley somehow incorporates many of those themes into this story, as part of Fairly's and Rowena's journey. I wish I had known this before I started the book, as it probably would have made a lot more sense for me.

So on one hand, this was brilliantly done and (in hindsight) I can absolutely appreciate the style and format. On the other hand, it totally twisted my brain while I was actually reading. I swear I went on multiple internet search tangents trying to figure out if something in the story was referring to a real life event. And I still have no idea if that is the case.

If you enjoy contemplating abstract and hidden meanings, then this is for you. If you are looking to breeze through something entertaining, leave this for another day.
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Three Eight One follows two storylines – one is a story from 2024 in which a young protagonist, Fairly, goes on a quest; the other frames it: Rowena, a curator living in 2314, tries to make sense of Fairly’s story.

This novel explores some interesting themes – the reliability or not of historical evidence, the ways historical evidence must be categorized and ‘made sense of’ at later times, the nature of quests and the ‘hero’s journey,’ and more. Understanding all aspects of the novel is emphatically not the point – I think readers with this expectation will be frustrated or disappointed by it – and it leaves one with, perhaps, more questions than answers. I really enjoyed this novel overall, but I did find the pacing inconsistent – I found the first 40% or so dragged compared to the rest, which I found much more captivating.

Thank you to Solaris & NetGalley for the ARC I read for this review.
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“I’m beginning to understand that the world is not my friend.” 

I wavered between three and four stars for this book. I genuinely did enjoy it. I found it a very easy read, and got through it quickly. I love modern surrealism in literature (Mieville and van der Meer are examples that come to mind) and this book definitely winked at other weird literature. In the end I went for three stars because I feel like it wasn't clear enough what the author's intent was. 

This book starts with a foreword by a gestalt consciousness who chips in throughout the real story through footnotes. This is a great set up, reminiscent of other ergodic literature like Danielewski’s House of Leaves. As the “narrator” takes us through the literature they’re analysing, we learn more about them, their life and their feelings, and we witness a change in them, as there are time skips between their notes. Meanwhile, the core of the book is a digital fairytale that has deeply affected the narrator. 

I feel like I needed more from the interjections. More about the narrator’s life and their journey reading the digital fairytale. But I also needed more about the fairytale’s origins. Who wrote this, and why? Why did the narrator not do more to uncover this? A journey to uncover the truth of this piece’s inception could have been a great parallel to Fairly’s own journey. The balance between the two parts of the book felt off to me, just by a little but enough that it felt unfinished. In addition, the narrator’s decline into existential dread felt very rapid, and I think I would have preferred it if it had felt more like an inexorable slide. Aside from this, I struggled to pull meaning from the fairytale. It was clearly very impactful on the narrator, but I couldn’t really see why. The metaphors were a bit too opaque, perhaps, the surrealism just on the far side of comprehension. I feel like I need to sit down with the author and have them explain to me what it all meant and what they were trying to say, which isn’t a feeling I enjoy after finishing a novel. 

That all being said, there was lots to like about this book. The writing was at times very good, and I ended up with plenty of lines highlighted in my Kindle. I especially liked the changes in person (from third to first to second and so on), something that felt genuinely fresh and exciting. Ultimately, I would recommend this book if you enjoy books that play with structure and technique in fun ways.
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Thank you to NetGalley and Aliya Whiteley for providing me with an ARC of this novel in exchange for my thoughts on it!

I’m really impressed by Whiteley’s attention to detail in segmenting the story into 381 word segments, I can’t even begin to imagine what the editing process must have looked like to pull that piece of symbolism off.

I loved the use of footnotes to tell the story within the story, however this may be a product of me having read this as an ebook which made jumping back and forth from the footnotes to the main text much easier. I imagine for people reading a physical copy the process may get a bit more frustrating, especially in segments that are a bit more note heavy.

I’d like to return to this book someday knowing how it ends to dig further into the earlier sections now that I know more about the rules of the world and Fairly’s/the narrators place within it.
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An oblique, deconstructed quest narrative, apparently published in 2024, as annotated in 2314 by someone looking back from that Age of Curation to our own Age of Riches, where the problem for future historians is not fragmentary evidence but a surfeit. The story within the story would, by itself, already have felt like the other Whiteley I've read, with its unsettling reversals, its sense of multiple lives occupying the same space on completely different terms. I especially liked the way that the quester kept ending up in spaces thronged with tourists, yet having completely different interactions to theirs; think the distinction so self-consciously imposed by those who define themselves as travellers not tourists, except more so, and as if they were fooling anyone. Gradually the mysteries of the Horned Road deepen, but so does the suspicion as to whether the whole odyssey means a damn thing. You know when you look at a map of the Mediterranean and see what a trivial distance Ulysses actually had to cover? Part of me wonders whether thinking about that was the inspiration for this book.

Enfolding that, the framing device, which you could sometimes suspect might be a way for the author decently to point out how clever she's being, making sure that the reader notices when the narrative switches from third to first to second person and suchlike. But there's also a long tradition of fictional footnoters gradually revealing the extent to which they're losing the plot, in which this proudly takes its place. As it proceeds, we gradually pick up more and more hints about this Age of Curation, and the losses which might shadow the gains of living in a vastly more stable and safe world. I'm usually a little suspicious of that line of argument, which can feel like human logic twisting itself into knots in an attempt to console a person for living in a chaotic era, but the realisation here is, if not quite Ada Palmer-level, certainly more substantial and plausible than is often the case. And as it reflects on the quest story, the two together add up to something more, a musing on aloneness, growing up, and how hard it is to sum up knowledge gained by experience and pass it along without it ending up sounding really trite. This last, of course, also meaning that it's hard to sum up Three Eight One, a book I could equally see becoming a cult classic, or sinking without trace. I'm hoping the former.

(Netgalley ARC)
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"Three Eight One" is such an interesting and thought-provoking SFF novel and I am still turning it over in my head. I'm not sure I fully understood every aspect of the story but I loved it and will be thinking about it for a long time.
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Review was published on my Instagram account, see text below:

Three Eight One by Aliya Whiteley :: Mapo Tofu

Three Eight One is my first advanced copy read from @netgalley and rebellionpublishing, whose synopsis and cover caught my attention. This book was one of the most interesting books I’ve read as there are two story lines, however, the second story line takes place entirely in the footnotes. To be honest, I felt that the constant flipping back and forth took me out of both stories which I then found difficult to follow. As both also take a place in a futuristic world, adapting to language and setting was also tough when constantly changing. That being said, in the end, I felt myself enjoying the self-reflection that both main characters focused on. While it may seem depressing, I do love the thought and idea that not everyone is destined to make big sweeping changes, sometimes just journeying on a commitment to frivolity.
Throughout the ‘main’ story of this novel, Fairly talks a lot about the power of ‘Cha’ and the influence the Cha have. For awhile I had selected my own imaginary idea of what a Cha was, but at some point it turns out that Chas are just pigs? I’m still not convinced I got that right/understood, but hey, that’s what we’re going with! For this book pairing, I wanted to do a pork dish but also since Fairly didn’t seem to happy to be eating the Cha, I thought mapo tofu would be the ideal pick. Made both with ground pork and tofu, this dish can help fill you up if you find yourself on any quest.
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Aliya Whiteley’s latest novel is unique, a ‘hero’s journey’ more colourful than life, a sense that there is a lacquer over the top of what we read about Fairly – a young ‘quester’ setting off from her home village to explore a strange land. A feeling that we’re reading a description of a videogame rather than seeing the coding underneath, or the inspiration for the story. Which makes it perfect that there is in fact an additional layer of interpretation: hundreds of years later, an archivist living in a very different world (where the individual no longer truly exists, as human consciousness is shared) finds Fairly’s story and annotates it, trying to decode its meaning.

Fairly’s story, titled The Dance of the Horned Road, is weird and sometimes inscrutable, with repeating motifs such as mysterious creatures called cha, a ‘chain device’ Fairly must press at pivotal points in her journey (and which always causes the narrative perspective to shift), and the sinister ‘breathing man’ who stalks her all the way. It can feel useless to try and impose a moral on any of it. My take is that it’s best understood by way of the tension between Fairly’s solitary quest and the archivist’s existence as a person in whom ‘all the information ever amassed’ is contained. It reminded me of books like Confessions of the Fox, The Book of Luce and The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas – none of which are SFF, but all centre on a similar idea about a narrator trying to excavate the truth from a document/cache of evidence, layers of reading on top of reading.
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I desperately wanted to like THREE EIGHT ONE. The premise is intriguing and it’s just the kind of quirky book that I usually inhale. The description made it sound like it could have similar vibes to Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into THREE EIGHT ONE at all.

I did enjoy contemplating someone 300 years in the future, trying to sift through all the information humans produce, following clues in a story written in 2024. However, once the 318 word mini-stories started (featuring a girl named Fairly who was very one-dimensional to me) I tuned out and found myself drifting away. In the other timeline, I never related to Rowena, either.

I slogged through hoping that the end would tie all the bizarre parts of THREE EIGHT ONE together, but it never happened for me. I do have to give author Aliya Whitely props for trying something new which does evoke some kind of feeling - but for me, it wasn’t a good one. I’m just exhausted.

Thank you to NetGalley and publisher Rebellion for the opportunity to read a digital ARC of this book and provide my honest feedback.
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My Review📖🖋️
 Three Eight One is a weirdly hypnotic book that takes a while to get into but is eventually worth the effort. It is a complex and intriguing novel that covers two timelines and two contrasting individuals. One is Rowena Savalas, a curator of the twenty-fourth century, and the other is a young girl named Fairly, a villager from the distant past.
  Their paths cross as Rowena, a curator of the vast archive of the twenty-first century's primitive internet, stumbles upon a story published in the summer of 2024. In the story, the protagonist, Fairly, walks the Horned Road – a quest undertaken by youngsters in her village when they come of age. She is followed by the "breathing man," a looming presence, dogging her heels at every step. 
  Rowena is soon enthralled with the mystery of the text. But is it autobiography, fantasy or fraud? What's the significance of the recurring number 381?   As she follows Fairly's quest, Rowena comes to question her own choices, and a predictable life of curation becomes one of exploration, adventure and love...
  It becomes increasingly difficult as the narrative progresses to actually fathom the mindset of Rowena and where exactly her head is at. There seems to be something seriously amiss in her personality that you are never quite sure of, and it makes for fascinating reading. Rowena draws parallels with her own life, her ambitions and her ultimate quest. She can be a tad blinkered and intense, so it can get dramatic and emotional, as you might expect, with a certain amount of realism added to the overall tone.
 The author tends to veer toward the unconventional and mildly diverse in this particular novel, and its moments of vagueness tend to cause the narrative to be on the slow side. 
The fascinating use of footnotes was a plus, even if some of them were a bit obscure and seemingly indecipherable. Not that it spoiled it in any way or form, but it just called for paying close attention to the finer details. There were plenty of other things that were engaging and well-conceived, including the descriptive and vivid futuristic setting.
  I thought Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley was brilliant, so expecting the sort of perfection the second time around was asking a bit much. Nevertheless, Three Eight One is a decent read, and those readers who like self-discovery, thought-provoking and deep-meaning stories will enjoy this novel.
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What an odd book this is.
This is a mundane sci-fi novel, the type that has no intergalactic apocalyptic war and fights. This is all about internal journeys, growth, truth and the meaning of life... it's smart, thought provoking, strange, and not about much at all, really.
Imagine in 300 years if someone tried to understand the people that existed today... imagine that among the monstrous amounts of useless content we create, they selected this one book, this one not particularly good fantasy quest, and analysed it with their own prism... and as you read you start to see more meaning too, and this not very good book starts to acquire depth and is changing... or perhaps you are changing as you're reading?
What a clever book this is.
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The novel promises a deep exploration of the coming-of-age theme and the complexities of growth, change, and the loss of innocence, often against our own will. It paints a vivid picture of a world where everything Fairly believed to be true is overturned, leaving her—and readers—questioning the very essence of reality. The path to self-discovery is presented as a common yet uniquely transformative experience for each individual, making readers reflect on the diversity of human journeys.

However, despite its potential and intriguing premise, "The Horned Road" can be a challenging read. The story's cryptic nature and frequent veering into ambiguity may make it difficult for readers to fully connect with the narrative. The lack of clarity can leave readers feeling disoriented and disconnected, much like the protagonist Fairly herself.

The novel's depth and exploration of its themes may be its strongest aspect, but it is equally its downfall. While it attempts to provoke thought and introspection, the complexity of the narrative may overwhelm some readers, making it difficult to fully immerse themselves in the story. The beauty of the novel's central message—the idea that the path to self-discovery can be both universal and profoundly individual—is overshadowed by the difficulty of grasping the storyline.

While this book aims to delve deep into the human experience, the narrative style can be a hurdle for readers looking for a more straightforward connection with the story. For those who enjoy challenging reads that encourage introspection, this novel might hold a unique appeal. However, for those who prefer a more accessible and engaging narrative, it may leave them wanting more, as was my personal experience.
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This book is the poster child for trusting the process. I had no idea what was going on for the first 75% or so which was equally madenning and fun, as I enjoyed trying to figure it out. It was a pretty unique plot and I enjoyed Rowena a lot as a main character. The future world she is set in seems quite wild and interesting and the parallel between now and then is well done.
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I enjoyed this strange, but very interesting story.  Bracketed by someone in the far future discovering it amongst the overwhelming quantity of information from our era, the story takes place present day, but with some fantastical elements.  The inner story follows Fairly, a young woman who is on a culturally standard young adult milestone event, a Quest, to follow a special road and learn about mysterious creatures called cha.  Fairly is very introspective, and doesn't really connect with other people, so she wanders mostly alone through a series of slightly off experiences.  It's not that clear to me what the moral of Fairly's tale is, but it has a profound effect on the reader from the future, and I found it though provoking and unusual.
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Three Eight One gave me Murakami-Hard-Boiled-Wonderland vibes and I really enjoyed reading it. This book is about a journey and it is a journey. There were moments where I thought I'd figured it out only to be thrown off course again. Trying to understand what it all means may be futile, but it was certainly entertaining trying to figure it all life itself! It asks interesting questions and exposes you to different points of view. I will have to read this a second time, but I'll get the book so I can read the footnotes more easily (important part of the story and not particularly easy in Ebook format). Recommended!
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I received an advanced copy of this book through NetGalley.

At first this book seemed a bit confusing. At the beginning it felt like the author was trying to write a great story about a kind of magical, weird and absurd world, but it seemed just that; trying. Then the story began to take on and became interesting; the first thing that held my attention were cha and the mystery surrounding what they actually were. I finished the book and I'm still not sure about that. Then the final goal of the writer started to feel more comprehensible as the quest took on, and you started to think that you figured out she wanted to represent every human's quest to reach their place and goal in life; but as I finished the book I'm not really sure about that either. At least now the book really seemed to be written to be like that -an actual well constructed story about an absurd universe that in reality is not so distant from our own; but then, this I still have yet to comprehend, the narration switches out of the blue from 2nd to a 3rd person narrator. I think it kind of meant that Fairly was slowly drifting away from her actual goal, as it switched back again at any major epiphany she had, and in the end I believe this to be the most probable explanation, but it really caught me off guard while I was reading because it felt like a mistake; it was so unexpected. Another thing that left me kind of unsure how to feel about it is the woman who years later finds the document of The dance of the Horned Road. When her notes kind of abruptly stop during the book I initially thought she was being forgotten as a character, because it was without notice, and when they picked back up they seemed completely unrelated and also they didn't seem like she was trying to understand Fairly's story anymore; it seemed like, now that she had lived her own life, she was commenting just to make parallels with her own "quest" and not to understand Fairly's. To conclude, this book both kind of kept me hooked and kind of put me into a slump. In the end I think I enjoyed both its absurdity and its connection with real life; it gave me a perspective to reflect on and something to think about.

Side note about the NetGalley epub: I think that the "notes" didn't work perfectly (sometimes you came back to a different part of the story; I wasn't able to find notes 1 and 2; when you finish reading the dance of the horned road you have to search for the continuation of the story for yourself because there isn't a link), and there were also some issues with the text format (sometimes you couldn't highlight just a sentence but it highlighted the whole page).
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Interesting..I don’t know,what I think.. nice writing style. Strange adventure and futuristic look back into the adventure. I wanted to finish it and find it a difficult book to categorise even after finishing it. Thank you to #netgalley and the publisher for an advance copy.
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This is one of those books that is a bit difficult to talk about, because I don't really know what I think about it, because it's just so unique and unlike anything else I've read recently. There are two halves to the story. The first one is the perspective of Rowena, a sort of curator from the 24th century working on curating things from the primitive internet of the 21st century. And she stumbles upon this strange text from 2024 called "The Dance of the Horned Road", which is the other half of the book (though it occupies more than half the space).

This strange text is about Fairly, a teenage girl from a village who takes on this quest that other young people do when they come of age. She is chased by "the breathing man" along the way. The story just gets weirder and weirder as we get to see more of this quest. And Rowena's thoughts about the text (and how her life is affected by it) are written as footnotes. The first thing that fascinates Rowena about this text is the fact that she can't figure out whether this text is autobiography or some sort of fantasy fiction, and after that it's like going down a rabbit hole. 

The story that takes up most of the book, "The Dance of the Horned Road" is both weird and really normal at the same time. On one hand, it's just a regular quest narrative, one that often times seems very straightforward, but other times, there are things that make you wonder if we're following a reliable narrator or not. And not only that, the way it's told is sometimes normal, but other times it would just randomly change from 1st person perspective to second or third (and in the other directions too) within a sentence. 

I kept thinking that by the end, things are gonna make complete sense, and it really didn't, and yet that was kinda fitting so it didn't bother me that much, which is just kinda how I feel about the book as a whole. It certainly isn't for everyone, and it will probably end up being polarizing (like around 3.5 average on Goodreads) but I didn't regret reading this book, even if I'm not wholly sure how I feel about it.
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