Reviewed by Andrea Marks-Joseph
A thrilling adventure into twisted dreamworlds and alternate timelines
Artefactum’s opening line is my favorite of the year by far: “Sam was only seven years old when he destroyed his first universe.” And the novel ends with a line so majestic that I gasped. It was not the first time I did so.
We meet Sam before he knows anything about traveling the universe. He keeps learning about his role in the multiverse right until the very end of this brilliant, chaotic tale which spans decades of his life and “the deranged love” story it blossoms into.
The story starts with a romance-novel-worthy meet-cute between Sam and his girlfriend Una Malia. Early in their star-crossed-lovers-on-steroids relationship, the couple discovers they can jump through realities while watching porn, physically entering the scenes they watch. (The novel’s title refers to the technical name for the ancient religious objects which they use to travel through the multiverse: artefactum.) This inspires the couple to go on all sorts of surreal sexcapades together. Time moves differently in the various worlds; lives shifting and families aging at different speeds as they stumble in and out of each other’s lives.
“Sam could take a weekend off work and be gone for two weeks in whatever new world the two chose to explore. And so, even though Sam and Una only appeared to live together for a handful of months, they had, in actuality, been living together for years. A thousand universes, sexual or not, were watching the deep love between the peculiar couple develop and root.”
When Una suddenly dies in the heat of an argument, Sam is heartbroken. Then he learns about the other kinds of universe-hopping (not all so hedonistic in nature; some warped reflections of his reality, others utterly destructive) and realizes that Una may actually be somewhere out there waiting for him.
The romance in this story is impeccable. The banter, the longing, the aching regret—Sam and Una have all the qualities of a great sweeping cinematic romance. Things get even more exciting (and emotional) when Sam meets alternate versions of his friends, family, and himself—a phenomenon made even more surreal when some of those people have died in this reality, or when he learns he’s died in theirs. Author J.E. Tobal uses wholly unique storytelling devices to explore all that this means for Sam.
Sam’s quest to find Una sets off a catastrophic megaverse-exploding chain of events that circles right back to his home. Natural, engaging (and often hilarious) dialogue is a constant, but so is the agonizing grief and desperation to be reunited with those he knows and loves.
This story is wide and weird and wondrous—but Tobal tells it with Sam and everyone he loves at the core, so it feels intimate and personal no matter how many infinite possibilities we explore. And we certainly encounter more possibilities than I could have ever imagined. The novel never fails to surprise. Every time Sam and his people feel comfortable and settled, shocking new developments shatter through their lives.
These “extradimensional excursions” lead Sam to have conversations with beings existing in entirely dark spaces, to murder strangers, to enter the dream worlds of people he loves. At one point, Sam is thrown down a well carved into the clouds, where he travels from Purgatory to Hell: “He lost his sanity, regained it, then lost it at least a half-dozen or more times. He made friends with the clouds. Had arguments with them. Forgave them. Accused them of betraying him. Made friends with them once more. And then he touched the ground.”
Artefactum asks its readers to consider the same questions its characters do: How long can you stay in love if you’re both keeping secrets? How can you forgive someone if you only know half the story? Can we truly shape our own destinies? Is anything truly inevitable or impossible? What does falling in love with your girlfriend look like when there are countless versions of her in the multiverse and you have access to all of them, and she to the endless versions of you? How do you raise a child together in this wild expansive reality?
Tobal’s writing allows Sam to grapple with these questions in the most bizarre, brilliant ways. Artefactum has so much heart and personality. The characters come alive from the page so that you really felt like you’ve met them.
Though the language may feel vulgar and crass to some, for others, the way Artefactum’s cast speaks to each other—their love spilling out sharply with banter and crude, mocking comments—is realistic. Tobal is remarkable in writing dialogue that feels like these people have known each other for a lifetime. They’re always just a few sentences away from a fight with family members and closest friends. Even at their happiest, the conversational tone seems slightly aggressive, when in actuality they’re conveying humor, understanding, support, or compassion for each other.
Artefactum is dark at its core, where it can seep its pain into the edges of everything. The places Sam ends up are often gruesome or horrific in their own twisted way: An army of sentient cockroaches barricading a basement dwelling; nightmares described in spine-chilling detail; the sudden ache at seeing a friend who has already died in your world, now sparkling bright and vivacious at a party; the shock of seeing your dead girlfriend, all tattoos and wild hair, as an adult in photos of yourself as a child at a playground, then hearing your mother’s memories of her offering to push you on a swing. Sam’s life is filled with magic while he is drenched in loss and weighed down by misery. When mysterious inter-dimensional agencies get involved, and a child is born in the heart of these “otherworldly shenanigans,” Artefactum reaches strange new heights.
Sam is constantly problem solving, reinventing multiverse theories as he experiences them; simultaneously grieving and hoping that he can find his girlfriend alive and well somewhere in time. Though the narrative deals thoroughly with feelings of guilt and grief, Artefactum tells its story with rich, vibrant humor. I found myself as captivated as I was concerned, as emotional as I was entertained. Frequently chuckling at the grumpier characters or the relatable rudeness some of the familial characters share.
There’s also a lot of fun in the classic time-travel tropes like avoiding your present self in the timeline you’ve jumped into. It’s thematically heavy, but Artefactum maintains its spirit of silliness in scenes like that photograph of Sam as a child: At this stage of the story, he’s been using the adrenaline that comes with an orgasm to trigger the time jumps—but how does one jump into a park filled with children (and his parents) when this masturbation-forward travel means he arrives at a place with his pants around his ankles and his penis in his hand?
Think about the weirdest conversation you’ve ever had. Now multiply that by a thousand and involve everyone you’ve ever loved and are yet to love (and hate) in every universe. Got it? Yeah, that is the level of weird we’re operating from here.
Everyone is aware of how strange it is, but there’s a deep love and history swirling between the various iterations of themselves, so they keep moving forward. In other stories this ambitious, readers may find themselves paging back to reread conversations or figure out where they actually are in the universe—Here, you’re in for the ride, and you’re right there with them. Somehow, despite the perplexing nature of Sam’s transient grip on reality, I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so solid in my understanding of a speculative novel before. Perhaps in the hands of any other author, Artefactum would be disorienting and overwhelming. Instead, this is the most complex story I’ve read in months, and yet it is also the novel that’s been easiest to follow.
Readers should prepare for scenes depicting animal death and the murder of elderly and terminally ill people for personal gain. There are fatal car accidents and a pregnant person who dies before they can give birth. There are also multiple discussions about and instances of suicide and a reveal of personal surveillance without consent, which includes filming sex acts without their knowledge.
Readers may find it uncomfortable—I certainly did—how frequently the characters console themselves with the fact that they killed people in hospice or poor people who were “near death” by their assessment, going so far as to communicate relief that they hadn’t “taken a real life.” There are definitely some offensive offhand comments that feel out of touch with what’s acceptable in our society. These lines offer nothing to the story and should have been eliminated in a sensitivity-reading pass, but the phenomenal execution of an extensive multiverse makes it worth overlooking them if you’re able to.
Like the cave city it describes, Artefactum is “intricate, disturbing, awe-inspiring, nightmare-inducing.” It is at turns macabre and morbid, while remaining deeply philosophical and profound. This book will make you gasp, laugh out loud, and lean forward in intrigue—many, many, many times. Artefactum gallops forth with incredible, mystical lore that collides with our concepts of philosophy, humanity, reality, and death in astounding ways. It’s romantic and devastating; it’s thought-provoking and heartbreaking. With dramatic, unexpected reveals that left me wide eyed, jaw slack, entirely enthralled, and characters that had me emotionally invested in the wildest ride—Artefactum does it all.
Highly recommended for fans of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Jumper, and Jumanji, Artefactum is what happens when The Time Travelers Wife goes horribly wrong, gets violent and vindictive, and still chooses to be devastatingly romantic.
Expansive and extraordinary, Artefactum has the same quality of dreamlike, wondrous magic with powerful real life implications as The Sandman. This is a book that feels like a journey across worlds and through lifetimes, with stakes higher than one might imagine is possible. Its darkest turns are reminiscent of another exceptional novel adaptation: The Magicians. Artefactum is the kind of story you’ll exhale after reading and immediately wonder who you can pass it along to so that they can go on this unbelievable adventure, too.
Thank you for reading Andrea Marks-Joseph’s book review of Artefactum by J.E. Tobal! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.