Throughout Western mythology, white men with swords have been the heroes while the rest of us watch, oohing and aahing, from the sidelines. With his genre-bending novel, The Changeling, Victor LaValle updates the epic narrative for the 21st century, telling the tale of Queens native Apollo Kagwa’s journey from typical Facebook-oversharing dad to slayer of flesh-and-blood demons.

When the story opens, Apollo is a regular joe just trying to keep it all together, supporting his family through a hardscrabble used-book enterprise. But when his wife commits a primeval act of violence against their baby boy and disappears as if by some dark magic, Apollo must leave behind the ordinary and embark on an Olympian quest that leads him deep inside a cursed New York. Each successive challenge demands prowess he didn’t know he had—and changes our perception of who a hero can be.

LaValle had a quest of his own in writing The Changeling: He had recently become a dad, and he needed a role model. His father had left the family when LaValle was a baby; while his single mother worked long hours as a legal secretary, young Victor busied himself reading—comic books, horror and fantasy, fairy tales. Especially the latter.

In many ways The Changeling reads like a fairy tale. The problems at hand may not be the ones of old—sieges, plagues, wolves carrying off girls wearing red hoods (compared with the short, often brutal existences of our Black Death–beset forebears, our iPhone-dominated lives are positively carefree). But then again, maybe some terrors are timeless: the fear that wrathful, hairy creatures will kidnap our children or that witches bearing sock puppets might kill the man who happens on their coven. In the course of his journey, Apollo encounters a few of each, including two types of trolls: holdovers from the Dark Ages with eyes “as large as a manhole cover” and the equally sinister contemporary iteration, whose caves are the internet. And as if it’s not enough to have to face down monsters while going about your daily business, there are also the challenges a man of color deals with every day. It makes you wonder: Would Hercules have been able to complete his 12 labors under threat of stop-and-frisk? To thwart today’s menaces, the novel reveals, we need today’s heroes—not the son of Zeus, but the son of a Ugandan immigrant, a new kind of warrior who can fend off fiends and then go home to cook dinner for his family.

The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau)

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