Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

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Book Review: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Star Ratings:

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range recommendation: 16+ (horror, sexual violence, math.)

The Supernatural Enhancements is a cryptograph mystery, a haunted house horror story, and a Southern Gothic as seen by Europeans. It’s made up of diary entries, transcribed conversations, letters, and more. If you like found footage stories and things that go bump batshit crazy in the night, check it out.

A. and Niamh come to Point Bless, Virginia not knowing what to expect at Axton House. A., our otherwise nameless protagonist from an unspecified European country, inherited the enormous, secluded mansion from a recently deceased distant cousin. Ambrose Wells and A. never met, but Wells died the same way his father did: plunging to his death out the window at the age of fifty in highly suspicious circumstances. Compared to other, older rumors about Axton House, a few odd window-tragedies are comfortably dull. The family that gave the estate its name, before Wells’ line bought it up much later, was known for inhumane cruelty, especially to the slaves who once lived on the plantation. Everyone in town knows the place is haunted. A. is a skeptic who “wants to believe” (he watches a lot of X-Files) and Niamh is mute but not without opinions, but the two of them will have to re-think their relationship with reality as they delve into the secrets hidden behind every door of Axton house, and every twist of the maze around it.

The ghost stuff is cool, of course, because I love ghost stories. Creaky floorboards, electrical disturbances, human shadows standing behind the shower curtain… what fun! Even more interesting, though, were the secret codes and hidden messages A. and Niamh find all over the place. Ambrose Wells belonged to some super-secret society of Rich Old-Fashioned Dudes Having Thrilling Global Adventures. Every year, on the Winter Solstice, they would meet at Axton House for some annual, esoteric observance. Since Niamh and A. don’t know what the meeting entails, they need to put the pieces of Ambrose Well’s haunted life together before the Solstice to find out if these are just old guys playing with a “bourgeois passtime” or desperate men on a dangerous mission.

There are codes and maps and cyphers and grids so complex they require mathematics. There’s a sinister maze in the backyard. There’s an enormously tall German butler with many secrets behind his respectable facade – I kid you not! Too many threads from different mysterious genres tied together in one tangle? Maybe. But I liked A. and Niamh enough to follow them, to be confused and frustrated with them, then rejoice whenever they figured something out. Of all the characters, these two major ones were probably the only fully fleshed-out persons to be found. But it didn’t really matter that various lawyers, businessmen, neighbors, and Oddly Wise Far Away Aunts Of Dubious Relation seemed built to further the story, sometimes. This is not a realistic tale by any means, so a Southern Gothic stereotype or an overly expositional old man (pipe included!) here and there seemed to fit right in.

I’d also like to mention that The Supernatural Enhancements is Edgar Cantero’s first book written originally in English. The dialogue and descriptions occasionally veered from cliché to slightly pretentious, but at no point did I have to think “well, I guess this is good enough for someone who doesn’t usually write in English.” It was just good enough, period. So well done there, Mr. Cantero. Especially given the pieced-together method of presentation, with all sorts of scholarly articles and even security footage transcriptions thrown in, he had to change voices an awful lot – frequently American ones in a region known for its eccentricities. Most of them were pretty well done.

My favorite voices, without a doubt, were our main characters’, though. A. and Niamh had an interesting relationship: he a twenty-something scholar with the sudden need to never work again, she a seventeen year old punk kid from Ireland with some roughness in her past and no voice to speak of it. Their conversations – her scribbling, him speaking – and even the looks they gave one another amongst all the weirdness were endearing. So who cares that I still don’t get how Aunt Liza fits into this picture? Or that the book’s denouement, while suitably horrifying, seemed to come out of nowhere and almost devalued some of the mystery that had been building up? I liked these kids and I liked solving the frightening mysteries of Axton House by their sides.

If I had to describe the style of Cantero’s book to someone, I guess I would call it a (slightly) less gimmicky House Of Leaves meets movies like The Skeleton Key and Paranormal Activity, if characters who wish they were in a Donna Tartt book visited Virginia. And yes, there were some Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons elements too, with all the arcane spirituality and complex codes. I’m not sure if The Supernatural Enhancements was quite as good as House of Leaves, and it definitely can’t come close to Tartt’s genius, but it a disturbingly fun mix all the same, and terribly absorbing.

I compare the book to other stories only to try and place its style; there were original elements here that impressed me even despite the far fetched and sometimes gruesome details. Suspend your disbelief for an evening, turn on all the lights, and get lost in Axton House for a while.

Book Review: Fiendish by Brenna Yovanoff

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age recommendation: 13 and up (scary stuff, some language)

The South has swamps; and mosquitoes; and yards full of decaying cars, rotting pieces of other houses. The South has church groups and superstitions and streets that are no place for respectable people. There is a unique fear that Southern parents instill in their children. At least, these are some things I’ve inferred from the gothic, dramatic, claustrophobic YA novels set down yonder. Dark stories about teenagers fighting against violent inner turmoil and sweltering old-time-y moralities of small-town pride. I tend to like the creepy atmospheres and am intrigued by the cultural idiosyncrasies that I don’t understand.

Much in the way that Natalie C Parker’s debut, Beware The Wild, evoked the tense relationship between close-knit communities and encroaching, untamable swampland, Fiendish pits townsfolk against natural forces too big and vicious to comprehend. In Yovanoff’s typical style – which I think of as Shirley Jackson drunk on teenaged angst – her main characters have to grapple with more than mere monsters rising from riverbeds or specters walking in tangled shadows. Brenna Yovanoff concentrates on the dangerous natures within her teen characters as carefully as she imagines disturbing corners of our own world for them to inhabit.

Recall, if you will the emotionally derelict town (almost monochromatic to my memory) in which her twisted changeling story, The Replacement, was set. There’s the surface level of small town politics, of trying to hold it all together in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But then there’s this underground world of darkness and horror that seeps up into her plots like an acrid, poisonous, echanting mist. In The Replacement, this place of horror was literally hiding just below Mackie’s town, full of cruel faery-things who looked like children and demanded the impossible.

Fiendish has its fair share of subterranean nightmare places. Clementine was locked in a cellar closet when she was just a little girl, and has nearly become part of the house’s decaying foundation after all her years there, drifting in some half-dreaming stasis. Reading about the roots and creatures that grew around her, the dust that collected on her forgotten form, made me want to leap and jump; shake my limbs out; maybe even do the hokey-pokey to get rid of the creeping feeling that shuddered through my nerves in sympathy. Clementine’s life changes when she comes back above ground again, now as a teenaged girl whose memories don’t go past early childhood. Thrust back into the blinding sunlight amongst a town full of people who can’t remember who she is, our sweet and determined protagonist has only her cousin and a few old friends to support her.

Clementine, Shiny, and Rae are all part of a local subset: folks who have “craft” – strange old magic – running through their veins. It’s not a glamorous sort of power, and their talents don’t necessarily make life any easier. Shiny’s flare for manipulating fire only gets her into worse scrapes when the local boys act like creeps. Rae’s affinity for associative charms and abstract magic only lets her skate by as an accepted member of society so long as she continues to hide her more elemental nature. Obviously, Clementine shouldn’t run around announcing that someone dug her out of the ground below her ruined house; the good old boys of New South Bend burned the homes on Weeping Road for a reason. They call it “the reckoning,” and all Clementine knows is that something horrible happened right before she was put in the ground. The families that live down there, with their generations of weird lore, are thought to be descendents from fiends. Fiends that haunt the nearby hollow, a sinister patch of wilderness where even the cockiest boys don’t venture.

There might be a measure of evil in what kept Clementine alive for all those years, so it should come as no surprise when Fisher, the boy who found and rescued her, isn’t wild about being seen in public with the strange girl who lives with a fiendish family and has missed out on so much of life. Clementine is innocent but she’s not helpless, and her attempts to catch up with her peers make the strange biases of “normal” people stand out all the more cruelly. Fisher was kind and brave when he dug her out of the cellar, not freaking out like his friends at the trickbag hung around her neck. He’s level-headed and caring, at least when he’s with Clementine. Check out this rather chilling moment, which nonetheless illustrates Fisher’s unflappably steady nature:

“‘Why don’t they like me?’ I whispered, getting my arms up, feeling around for his shoulder. ‘What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.’

Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange.

‘It’s not your fault,’ he said. ‘They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.'” (p.15 in the hardcover)

But one of the major themes in Fiendish is the difficulty of being loyal and fair when the pressures of a judgmental society are closing in. Fisher and Clementine don’t exactly band together, two teens in love against the world. His friends are jerks in trucks – the sons of those men who burned down Clementine’s house in the first place – and his grandmother is, quite frankly, terrifying. Though Clementine feels attached to him because he saved her, their occasional sweet moments alone are scattered between harsh encounters in town where he behaves like a very different, much more normal, sneering guy with old family in New South Bend. The romance in Fiendish is more a slow discovery of secret depths and histories, while a shared compassion keeps Fisher and Clementine determined to do what’s right in the end.

What’s right is never obvious in Yovanoff’s writing, though, and in this case it might not even be possible. The big magical showdown – towards which the frightening natural oddities and mounting social tensions build – gets a little out of hand by the end of the novel, but it sure is scary and weird. The monsters and spirits that haunt Wixby Hollow are even worse than the rumors that circulate town (heck, do I love it when Southern superstitions turn out to be right) and something’s been stirring them up to a restless nightmare. Superstitions abound in Hoax County, sometimes right under the smiling and ever-so-normal veneer of clean cut town traditions. Take the symbolic paintings of crazy fiends that go up with all the other patriotic decorations at the annual town fair, or even Fisher’s grandmother, who is meant to be the most uptight and upright citizen around. The little old lady knows more than most, and I loved reading about the insufferably awkward dinners shared by Clementine, Fisher, and this sharp matriarch. She might be mean and snappy (and a damn good cook), but Clementine needs to know what’s behind the dangerous events they’ve witnessed.

“Just that there’s five of you creatures up there in town now. Knocking around with craft in your blood and your bones. Five kinds of wrong, and that’s one wrong thing for every point on the reckoning star.” (p 151 in the hardcover.)

Local legends combine with universal concepts of five magical elements to set the stage for a dramatic clash of monstrous nature gone crazy versus normal people hopped up on fear. With Clementine, Fisher, Shiny, and Rae caught in the middle of two blindly ruinous forces, there’s no easy way to force this growing power back where it belongs. Personally, I preferred the first three quarters of Fiendish; following Clementine as she seeks the motives behind her awful imprisonment and sussing out the unnatural powers that thrive in the periphery of New South Bend. The prophecies and stand-offs were impressive and fraught, but not quite so evocative as an odd word heard on a street corner, or an eerie silence in the Hollow.

My own fondness for subtle Southern Gothic touches aside, Fiendish was an exciting novel that felt like a breath of summer while I read it in the freezing early spring. Not a pleasant, balmy summer, though. I felt the sticky, buzzing, fear-tinged air of frayed nerves and suspicious neighbors. Fiendish has a satisfying enough ending (yay standalone YA novels!) and is good fun for teen readers who like their towns creepy and their characters disturbed.

Book Review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

I would need both my hands and somebody else’s to count the number of times that Sunshine has been recommended to me.  Rosie has been so fervent that I might still have the bruises to show for it.  I knew that Sunshine was a unique spin on a vampire-slaying story before I started reading.  I knew that Robin McKinley is a phenomenal writer with acres of imagination to cultivate at her disposal.  I also knew that a lot of this book takes place at a bakery, and that the descriptions of cinnamon rolls and “killer zebra” cakes were just as seductive as the harsh, dark vampire world she’d created. (After reading, I can say: Huzzah! All of these things are true!) Knowing all this in advance, I made up my mind in advance to read Sunshine slowly, so that I could enjoy the process of discovering it for the first time.  Four days, and many dessert-cravings later, I extracted myself from New Arcadia, blinking oddly in the daylight and wishing to know what would happen next.

Sunshine wakes up every morning at 4 am to bake cinnamon rolls at her step dad’s coffee shop.  She likes her life in the bakery: the regulars, her coworkers, her sorta-boyfriend Mel.  Then, when she drives out to the lake one fateful night to clear her head, Sunshine’s life gets torn to pieces.  A vicious gang of vampires kidnap Sunshine and bring her to a big abandoned house in the woods, where they lock her in a room with another prisoner: an old and very hungry vampire. They don’t expect Sunshine and the vampire to talk. She is meant to be dinner.  Instead, she draws on a secret magical skill from her childhood to free them both, thus binding her fate and Constantine’s together.  Now the evil vampire behind Con’s imprisonment wants both of them dead.

It’s hard to return to a life of rising dough and bustling kitchens after an ordeal such as that.  Sunshine can’t forget what happened to her, and she’s drawn the attention of some Special Other Forces agents.  The SOF keeps an eye on any activity relating to non-humans, ever since the “Voodoo Wars” changed civilization and demons, were-folk, and vampires became a part of everyday life.  With the protectors of humanity dogging her footsteps around New Arcadia, and a bunch of really nasty vampires stalking her in otherworldly realms, Sunshine has to team up with her co-captive to try and turn their fate around.  It seems like everyone in New Arcadia has a dangerous secret.  The further Sunshine digs into the recent traumatizing events, the more she begins to realize how unusual her own past is, and what a danger she could be to the people she loves.

I have so many things I want to say about Sunshine, and they all refuse to get typed into neat sentences.  This book was always tugging on one corner of my mind over the four days it took me to finish.  Layers upon layers of otherworldly drama and mysterious characters have a way of distracting a girl.

McKinley drops us into a world where paranormal creatures are as much a part of daily conversation as complaints about grumpy customers. The horrifyingly real vampires who mess around with Sunshine’s life seem extra threatening in contrast to the dramatic rumors and stories which circulate.  The particular existence of demons, were-people, vampires, and the like is never unveiled in explicit detail.  Sunshine thinks about Other activity a lot, so we aren’t left entirely uninformed, but you need to get comfortable with odd new pieces of fantasy popping up in New Arcadia until you can get your bearings.  It took me several chapters to just accept the fact that I would be confused about some things until McKinley felt like revealing the answer.  Once I came to terms with this, the reading was much easier. The vampire-slaying action gets overly complex at times; maybe unnecessarily so.  My head began to spin from all the charmed objects and alternate planes of reality.  But McKinley’s such a good writer that she twists it all together into a functional and intense sequence of events.

Alas for my inquisitive nature, there were a whole bunch of intriguing side-stories which took up a great many pages only to be left unresolved!  Rosie assured me, when I stomped downstairs to vent my frustration after finishing the book, that Robin McKinley has wanted to do a sequel for a while but hasn’t managed to write something that worked.  Fine, fine.  The semi-realistic fantasy world in Sunshine is convincing and engrossing. Nearly all of the characters had such unique backgrounds and motivations, I could happily read a book devoted to each. A twenty book series, please! I actually liked how some of the newly magical events in Sunshine’s life didn’t have any direct influence on her vampire adventure, because that’s how real life works.  Over the course of a very strange year, she learns that her friends aren’t always as simple as she thought they were, and that her own heritage is too complicated to tackle head-on.

The reason Sunshine is such a long book has a lot to do with the narrative style.  Sunshine tells us about the events in the first-person, so we read along with whatever happens to be on her mind.  When she dwells on her childhood before the coffee shop, we learn how she got her name by lying in the sunlight to heal after a bad illness.  When she worries about the Special Other Forces catching on to her dealings with Con, we get a better picture of how the agency works (or sometimes doesn’t work) to protect humans from non-human dangers.

Sunshine is an extremely introspective woman, and I must say that I could have done without some of the re-hashing and moral conundrums which sometimes bog down the story’s flow. The excessive amount of pondering gives lots of weight to so many of those side-stories which never quite reached a conclusion. On the brighter side, Sunshine is a pretty hilarious narrator. Her sense of humor goes into gear at all the strangest moments, and a few of the scariest scenes are made a little more fun with her eye for black comedy. All the extra detail does make every layer of Sunshine’s life – and all of life post-Voodoo Wars – seem intricately whole and thoroughly real. And if you’re a devoted coffee-shop regular, you’ll probably be happy to read pages and pages of bakery life, where the dark menace so prevalent in Sunshine can’t quite take away the appeal of cherry tarts coming out of the oven.

Want it short(er) and sweet(ish)? Here’s how I wrote down my feelings soon after finishing the book, for my wrap-up of what I read in September.

Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better. …  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Other vampire books I’ve reviewed and recommend:

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Book Review: Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

Star Ratings for Thorn Jack

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up

Thorn Jack first caught my eye because I liked the title and the skull on the front. But, lest I be accused of judging a book by its cover, I got excited about it for better reasons soon enough. Thorn Jack is supposedly a “modern retelling of the ancient Scottish ballad of Tam Lin,” and I may have mentioned that “Tam Lin” is my absolute most favorite traditional ballad.

Have I mentioned this before? Oh, right; I have trouble shutting up about that magnificent fairy story. In the Spring, I went on a rather obnoxious rant about it, and I’m forever keen to read new interpretations.  (“Thoughts About Ballads: Tam Lin” can be read here.) That’s why this review is so damn long, and I apologize in advance. Thorn Jack looked to be a throwback to my goth-y days of yesteryears, back when I wanted to be a wicked, winged thing and sometimes dressed the part. So if this Katherine Harbour lady felt like throwing in references to fairy legends all over the place, that would be just fine with me.

Before I started reading, though, I gave myself a stern talking-to. It went something like this:

  • Me:”Self, lower those wacky expectations of yours! Remember how unreasonably picky you were about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin?”
  • Myself: “I remember. Why did she bother to call it Tam Lin when it was mostly Shakespeare homework with bad seventies haircuts and –”
  • Me: “Enough of your complaints, self! You may not have liked Dean’s re-telling, but that’s because you wanted it to be something it was not. All that whining you did about the class schedules and the smugness and the terrible pacing. I mean, yeah, the pacing was quite dreadful. But your silly indignation, when the story didn’t follow the exact pattern you wanted to read, just got out of control. Maybe it wasn’t the re-telling you expected, but you need to dive into books with an open mind, or risk being even smugger than that particular Janet.”
  • Myself: “Fine, fine. Fair enough: I shan’t make that mistake again. Authors can borrow as much or as little as they like from folklore, without needing to justify their choices to little old me. Happy?”
  • Me: “Never. But you may now proceed to give Thorn Jack the old college try.” (Like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Thorn Jack is set in and around a secluded college campus.)

 

The story:

Finn and her father have moved from California to Fair Hollow, New York, after her older sister’s suicide. Before she died, Lily Rose was preoccupied with thoughts about fairies and monsters. She collected their stories in her journal, and a little passage from that journal opens up each chapter in Thorn Jack. Lily Rose’s writing helps Finn realize, rather belatedly, that the oddities of her new town might be due to something weirder than just kooky wealthy residents.

Fair Hollow is really rather odd. Shrines of sinister toys and abandoned cakes decorate ruined chapels in the woods. The little girl who reads Tarot cards at Hecate’s Attic (I want to visit that shop, please!) knows way more than she should. Mansions which had once belonged to the rich and famous now lie abandoned and overgrown all over town. Finn’s college campus, HallowHeart, is decorated with elfin carvings and nods to ancient superstitions. When Finn attends a wild outdoor party with her new friends, Christie and Sylvie, she’s surprised to see that a great many people her age dress and speak and act bizarrely. Under the influence of blackberry wine, she follows a dark young man into the woods and thus encounters Jack and Reiko Fata for the first time.

The Fatas pass off as an extended family of wealthy eccentrics, but something about them is just unnerving. Reiko Fata doesn’t just look like royalty – stunning and cold – she acts the part of an imperious Queen all the time. Jack might be handsome and a little scary, but he’s a slave to Reiko’s beck and call. Then there are all the various cousins, the chauffeurs, the adopted siblings, the visiting friends; everyone is beautiful, and no one should be trusted. Finn and Jack start “hanging out” – if that’s what you could call bizarre midnight chats and old films in abandoned cinemas – and draw the attention of Reiko and her cronies. The more time Finn spends with Jack Fata, the curiouser she becomes about the Fatas and their inexplicable lives. With the help of Christie and Sylive, she wants to uncover the truth behind their facade. What’s keeping Jack so beholden to Reiko? Why does her classmate Nathan, adopted into the family, seem so uncomfortable all the time? And who are all these sinister people suddenly popping in and out of town for extravagant parties, threatening Finn and her friends whenever they make a new discovery?

Finn used to disbelieve the myths and legends her father taught. When she first meets Christie, she tells him, “Superstitions are useless and fairy tales are lies.” But three months in Fair Hollow will change her mind, because in this weird town superstitions could the the only thing to save her from a deadly fairy tale ending.

My thoughts:

It helps that this book isn’t specifically called Tam Lin, so readers won’t be so hung up on spotting direct parallels to the ballad right from the beginning. And it definitely is more inspired by the old Scottish story than it is a re-telling.

The Fatas – Thorn Jack’s approximation of the Fairy Court – behaved much in the way the court does in “Tam Lin”, with the pageantry, the mockery, and the sacrifice of a tithe. And some other pieces of the novel stuck to the ballad’s form, too. Finn lives at home with her father; she keeps going to forbidden old estates; and only mortal love can save whomever’s been doomed to act as the tithe. But otherwise the story meanders in other directions. Since I managed to check my expectations at the door, I was able to enjoy most of the book for what it was. It’s a cluttered and crazy salute to centuries of fairy-lore, with immature writing at times, but I had a great time reading it despite the several flaws. Thorn Jack reminded me of my early teenage years, even though all the major (human) characters are college students. I got totally sucked into the preternatural melodrama and I liked playing “spot the fairy” at every party scene.

There are plenty of fantasy stories for both teenagers and adults which show fairies as timeless creatures playing at, or bastardizing, human culture for a bit of fun. Alluring, wicked things straight from hearthside stories pass in and out: a dreamlike parade of old spirits disguised as eccentric young people. So many writers have brought figures out of the mythological imagination and into our modern lives.* Add Katherine Harbour to that list, because Thorn Jack was crowded with phookas, sluaghs, ghosts, tree spirits, etc. The book is almost certainly over-crowded with these characters dropping in and out, but even though the plot suffered for it I was highly entertained by the ever-shifting crowd. They were appropriately terrifying and mesmerizing at the same time, following their own selfish reasoning with no regard for mortals. I thought Harbour did a marvelous job of showing how small human lives were in the eyes of fair-folk; they really mean it when they call Finn and her friends “mayflies.” The Fatas were pretty, they were scary, and they were not of this world. I loved them.

My biggest complaint about Thorn Jack would undoubtably be about the romance between Jack and Finn. It did remain a few steps ahead of the sullen girl falls for dark boy because he’s aloof and hangs out by her window at night disaster-zone, because Jack is meant to be keeping an eye on Finn for more sinister reasons than his own heart. In fact, the concept that mortal love makes fairies grow hearts and bleed was kind of cool, and led to some examples of poetic cruelty between the Fatas themselves. With a knife, Reiko can take “heartless” to a whole new level – a reference to one of my favorite lines of the ballad. But Finn’s attachment to him happened too quickly and it seriously detracted from her own character. And oh, boy, did I get tired of hearing her describe his hands. I know there was enchantment at play, but the path from fascination to love wasn’t followed with enough conviction to justify the clinginess which followed. (Though there’s a moment when clinginess comes in handy at the end of the original “Tam Lin”. Ha ha ha.)

The friendships between other characters felt more believable, even though they also bonded almost instantly out of vague curiosity. Finn meets Christie within the hour of first moving to Fair Hollow, I think, but his rakish ways and grim logic in the face of horrors endeared him to me very quickly. Sylvie, the other member of their trio, is lovably goth, brave, and imaginative. Poor Nathan, all tangled up with the Fatas, is a sympathetic character and it’s easy to understand why Finn wants to help him. And the villains? They were scary as hell.

The majority of the action takes place off of HallowHeart’s campus, but the teachers there were mysterious enough that I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. And, as per the ballad, Finn’s dad was kind and smart but none too observant: the perfect sort of parent character for a story about young people struggling to keep a magical world separate from “real life”. I remember that fierce terror of having grown-ups catch wind of my supernatural concerns when I was a young teenager, and Harbour has managed to capture it very well.

“Ordinary Life had been infected by an otherworldly menace.” (p 245)

Her protagonists are older than I imagine them, but the threat of worlds colliding is very present and very right. Because even when the invisible world is crashing to pieces, you still never wanted to put your parents in danger or let on to your teachers that something was wrong. In this way, the emotional resonance never lagged in Thorn Jack even when the plot got tangled or the romantic tension felt off.

After the exhaustive academia of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, I’m quite content to get a mere taste of college life in this novel. The real action takes place in atmospheric ruins, in the woods, and at dizzy parties I want to attend. Harbour’s descriptions could be annoyingly repetitive – yes I get that the staircase was “art nouveau” without it being reiterated at every step – but the atmosphere was spooky and a good stage for such dark drama. Some moments were maybe too similar to Pamela Dean’s version: the students behaving weirdly must be theatre majors, the old photos of Jack look-alikes from the past must have some logical explanation, the constant quoting of poetry. At least Sylvie had the decency to call out Christie’s weirdness whenever he busted out a line from Yeats in regular conversation. But I’m being too picky again. While Tam Lin is technically a much smarter novel, with more subtlety and cunning allusions, Thorn Jack was just a more enjoyable read for me. I liked the twist with the sacrifice and was happy to have a bit of magic on nearly every page.

In the way that Fire & Hemlock and Tam Lin pulled bits and pieces from various ballads into one complex homage, though not nearly so craftily as Dianna Wynne Jones, Thorn Jack has some obvious parallels and some smaller little references. Comparisons to Holly Black’s Tithe might be more accurate.  Harbour incorporates various fairy characters and traditions into her plot, using a huge cast of minor characters to create an unearthly atmosphere in our own realm. Read the book to appreciate all the moments which dip into legend, but let yourself embrace the diversion into a more modern story along the way.

So, was Thorn Jack a good book? I think so… The cast of characters was sometimes hard to follow, the writing had clunky passages, and the romance was a bit of a mess. The ending, too, was confusing enough that I had to go through it again before closing the book. The book suffers from too much trying to happen in not enough space. But the entire time I was reading it, I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, and I wanted to stay in Fair Hollow for a long time. My delight in reading Thorn Jack is similar to my fondness for Anne Rice’s vampire books: there are so many weird characters I’d like to meet in the invisible world within our own. These books aren’t trying to be academic literature, they’re just fun. Thorn Jack is entertaining, dark, and an interesting debut. I will definitely be reading the next book in Katherine Harbour’s Night and Nothing series, whenever it comes out.

*An incomplete list would include Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Julie Kagawa, Brenna Yovanoff, Terri Windling, and many many others.

Book Review : The Quick by Lauren Owen (coming out June, 2014)

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

(Let it be hereby stated that I read an advanced reader’s edition of The Quick, which may still be waiting on final edits.)

When a friend and colleague of mine at the bookshop insisted that I read The Quick the moment she finished it, I knew right away that I would have lots to say about this debut novel. It’s one of my favorite kinds of story, in one of my favorite settings, but there are a few twists which caught us both off guard.  The Quick is a complex novel with a Victorian setting, a Gothic atmosphere, and a sweeping narrative. It’s also a monster story of sorts. I would have been utterly puzzled to realize – a hundred pages in – that there was some serious slaying to come, had my friend not mentioned her similar surprise. Neither the title nor the package revealed much about this book’s nature from the start. Since I have the galley and not the finished product of the book, I can’t help but wonder how heavily Random House intends to advertise the supernatural bent. On the back of my copy, it only says: “An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London”. Well, there’s menace aplenty and a grim sort of magic alongside what I can only call the “creature aspect” (to avoid spoiling too much). I was held in suspense once I finally got engrossed in the story, but it took me much longer than usual to immerse myself in Owen’s writing. As for the “epic scope,” I suppose that the many intertwining narratives and the multiple main characters prove that statement to be true.

The Quick starts out in Aiskew Hall, one of those large and drafty mansions in the English countryside which set the scene for so many sprawling novels. James and Charlotte are very young children when we first meet them, orphaned after their father’s death, and subject to uncertain futures. The scenes about the children’s games and fears were picturesque and I was charmed by their environment. I guess Lauren Owen grew up in an old Yorkshire boarding school, and her descriptions are excellent. From the secret passages indoors to the gardens outside, Aiskew Hall is a wonderful location. It’s too bad we don’t get to read more about it, as soon enough the setting switches to London.

Oh, Victorian London. So many distinctive tales have tramped up and down your streets – Dickens spin-offs have strolled alongside grisly horror stories. Sassy steampunk heroines now follow the same footsteps as eccentric detectives. There’s no real shortage of Gothic mysteries or supernatural horror crammed into that city’s ever-expanding boundaries of fiction, and I’m not sure if The Quick added anything too terribly new to the landscape. But there’s such an extensive literary heritage to late 19th century London that I do understand the appeal in borrowing the city’s peculiar brand of storytelling magic. While she doesn’t really break any new ground by setting her debut novel around a mysterious gentleman’s club in the darker parts of London, Owen does have a talent for creating atmosphere. I read the book over a couple of dreary late-November evenings and I was surprised every time I stepped outside to see neither hansom cabs nor top hats. I’m still keeping an eye out for ragamuffin pickpocket children (often my favorite characters in these sorts of books). When James and Charlotte experience the bustling hubbub of city life for the first time, their confusion and awe made the disorienting metropolis seem immediate and real.

After graduation, James moves to London and gets rooms with an eccentric friend-of-a-friend. He tries his hand at writing poetry, then moves on to plays after they see a production by some bloke named Wilde. Christopher Paige is lively and dashing while James is more of a reserved, respectful sort of fellow. Their personalities clash nicely and as their friendship deepens we get an entertaining glance at life in London for gentlemen with money enough to make society’s expectations the most pressing of their problems. It took a while, but eventually I found myself absorbed into the details of domestic issues and witty banter.

Right as their story started to get really interesting, though, Part II of The Quick introduces an entirely new point of view and style. I felt marooned and disoriented to be suddenly presented with The Notebooks of Augustus Mould in Chapter Six, and not only because the heading reminded me a little of The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend (a very different sort of book indeed, though equally British). At this point, Owen started to take a Dracula-esque approach to her narrative. By treating the excerpts from Mould’s notebooks as an active component of the story, and by using shifts in perspective to take the plot in an entirely different direction, the novel introduces four or five new plot lines and main characters.

A threatening presence causes gossip in London, haughty idealists take charge of a secret society, a little girl learns why some streets are off-limits, and a shared tragedy brings two unlikely friends together to face an evil which is damned difficult to kill. As the story progresses we do come to understand how everyone will eventually interact to create a high-stakes confrontation, but I spent half the book trying to find connections rather than giving my full attention to the plot. Much in Stoker’s style, Owen uses her structure to show how menace can unite people and affect a great many lives. I do wish she had brought the different groups of characters together earlier on, though, especially since the men and women themselves were distinctive and their interactions were downright fun to witness. The pacing was stilted at times, which detracted from the strong descriptions and appealing aesthetic. In the second half of the book, I found some redemption when the many different threads eventually did come together to propel us towards an exciting conclusion. The focus was just a little off – too many influences from the genre’s long history were vying for attention – and I felt that the novel couldn’t quite contain its own scope.

The author has borrowed an awful lot from her literary predecessors: The Quick contains distinctive elements of Dickens, Stoker, Shelley, Poe, Anne Rice, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The editor’s note which came with the galley mentioned that Lauren Owen started out writing fan fiction of Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager. Push through the slow start and clunky narrative shifts to where the action begins, and you’ll see how Joss Whedon has made his mark. Even though I had a hard time getting comfortable with the balance between the book’s Victorian style and its eventual supernatural standoffs, I had a great time with each of those aspects in their own way. Some characters seemed straight out of Great Expectations, what with their moral qualms and social hardships. Others were gunslingin’ badasses with tragic pasts. I was happy to read about violent little kids and a mysterious occult library, though there were times when I wondered if I should be reading two different books instead of this one.

Now that I’ve finished reading The Quick, I’m intrigued to see what sort of reaction it will get once it’s released into the wild. I think there’s some strong writing and great characters, and while the premise isn’t particularly original it was interesting and fun. The target demographic of readers is difficult to define, though. You’ll need to have an appreciation for Victorian sensibilities in order to get through the first half of the book, but you can’t be too picky about style or easily annoyed by clunky narrative structures. On the other hand, it might appeal to readers of dark and violent Gothic adventures like The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray – tense stories which don’t rely too heavily on historical realism – but the language might make the pace drag on for fans of that genre. I happen to be right in the middle of that spectrum and did enjoy The Quick. Anyone picking up the book will find it necessary to suspend their judgement and expectations along with their disbelief. If you can do that, then the interesting descriptions; absorbing atmosphere; and memorable characters will keep you reading right through to the book’s mysterious ending.

If you liked that show “Ripper Street,” I think you’ll feel right at home in The Quick. If you were enchanted by Erin Morgenstern’s novel The Night Circus (Rosie and I reviewed it here) you will probably enjoy it, too. The Quick is less stunningly magical than The Night Circus was, but I think the characters were more believable and the personal relationships were handled better. I read books for the atmosphere more than anything else, and I’m happy I stuck with The Quick. You can definitely tell that it’s a first novel, and I hope that Lauren Owen will develop a style which is more distinctly her own as her writing progresses. I will absolutely be keeping an eye out for any of her future work, and I hope she continues to write darkly aesthetic stories which transport us to a more mysterious time and place.

Review of The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

 

Star Ratings

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***

Age range recommendation: 16 +

I picked up The Daylight Gate to give Jeanette Winterson a second chance to impress me. When I saw that she had just published a new novel based on the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 I thought it sounded more interesting than Written On The Body (1993), which I found to be an unbearably contrived love story – not at all my cup of tea. The Daylight Gate was decidedly more interesting and infinitely more memorable despite the fact that it is a short novel, only slightly longer than 200 pages. Since I’ve always been interested in the history of witch hunts and superstition I was excited to learn that nearly every major character in the book is based on real figures from this rather horrifying chapter in British history. William Shakespeare even makes a brief appearance as a voice of reason when some characters go to see a production of The Tempest. Winterson states, in her introduction, “The story I have told follows the historical account of the witch trials and the religious background – but with necessary speculations and inventions… . The characters are real people, though I have taken liberties with their motives and their means.” She gives us a dark and unflinching look into the miserable lives of poor women in England’s early 17th century, describing the fear; violence; filth; and religious uncertainty which governed the daily existences of those ordinary people who suffered most keenly from King James I’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft.

It’s always difficult to read a piece of historical fiction without constantly wondering which details are faithful to the events and which have been invented for the sake of storytelling, but Winterson manages to create a gripping tale out of mostly historical fact by asking one fascinating question: what if the accused women really had been holding a witches’ Sabbat that diabolical night on Pendle Hill? By adding chilling supernatural elements to a series of events which were already rife with superstition, she challenges our perceptions of religion’s effect on the course of history. A woman’s loyalty is tested, and the conflict between a man’s faith in God’s law and his own moral standpoint threatens the lives of several remarkable characters from history. Alice Nutter has lost her certainty about the spiritual world, despite her own experiences with magic and alchemy in her past, and the townsfolk of Lancashire believe she has the Devil’s help in keeping herself youthful and prosperous. Roger Nowell wants to treat the rising accusations of witchcraft with a firm grasp on reality, but the presence of lawyer Thomas Potts in his jurisdiction – the real life author of The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire and a truly insufferable fellow – pressures him to use the gruesome force of royal decree upon the growing list of imprisoned witches.

There are no real heroes in The Daylight Gate; the imprisoned women have no qualms accusing each other in turn and one woman actually turns a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of her young daughter. Even the levelheaded Alice Nutter puts the safety of her loved ones above the law.

Winterson reveals the uncomfortable truth that the only way to survive in this time period was to look out for yourself before thinking of others. We get a sense of this horrifying time in history through the repulsive acts which are performed to summon the Devil’s assistance, but also through the desperation which shines through even mundane encounters. The dangerous period is invoked with as much careful precision as the ghastly setting, and the attention to physical detail which annoyed me in Written On The Body was more appropriate in The Daylight Gate, though it did get stomach turning as the depravity continued. As despicable as the characters seem, we grow to understand the motives behind their actions, which makes their various grisly ends even harder to read about, despite the fact that their fates were sealed long before Winterson took up the challenge of shaping them into a story.

The prose sometimes seemed more focused on shocking the reader than on balancing the book’s suspense, and I must admit that I could have done without some of the gory or sexual details, but I do understand how these moments were important to Winterson’s examination of the witch trials. There are a few moments of violent revenge which satisfied my need for justice, but The Daylight Gate is a generally hopeless story, so don’t pick it up looking for a historical adventure which will lead to a gratifying conclusion in which bravery triumphs over ignorance. A few characters are brave and loyal, but those traits had no chance against the fear which ran rampant in 1612. I happened to like the ending, though some readers may find it disappointing, but be forewarned that – despite the presence of magic in Alice Nutter’s unusually long life – this novel is not the sort of fantasy in which magic can undo reality. Reality was unpleasant in the 17th century. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot inspired men and women to distrust their own families, death and misfortune claimed children without justification, and faith was tested and shaken at every turn of fortune’s wheel. The Daylight Gate shows how the hysteria of one town can provide a window into the horrors of a time period which is too often glamorized in contemporary fiction.

By the time I finished The Daylight Gate – and it is a short read – my impression of Jeanette Winterson’s writing abilities had been improved. I still think that she should waste fewer words on grisly details and give her characters more room to develop, but the setting in this novel was well-wrought and her handling of recorded facts was impressive. The balance between historical trivia and invented plot was good, for the most part, and I would highly recommend The Daylight Gate to anyone who is interested in the 17th century witch trials and doesn’t mind having their comfortable illusions about Jacobean England trampled a little. If you tend to dislike historical fiction but enjoy very dark “low fantasy,” with occult and horror elements, this might also be a good choice. Despite the book’s brevity there are some good moments of creepy magic. But, if you have a weak stomach and no fondness for devilry, I’d avoid this particular novel. It’s not a comfortable or pleasant read, but it’s well-written and interesting, and I appreciate its effectiveness at revealing the grim realities of England’s past alongside an imaginative story.

 

Also posted to Dark Lady Reviews on Tumblr.

Archived Review: The Curiosities by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on March 26, 2013.

 

Since this is an anthology of short stories, the star ratings will be slightly different.

Star Ratings:

Writing: *** (3 stars. The authors chose to present their stories in their raw and largely unedited forms: notes in the margins point out what they would like to change. Despite the rough writing in places, the general quality is very good.)

Arrangement: **** (4 stars. Stories are relatively varied and presented in an appealing order. I wish the final story had been stronger, though.)

Balance: **** (4 stars. We get a nice mix of fantasy, horror, speculative fiction, legends, and psychological darkness.)

Personality: ***** (5 stars. I mean to say that the authors’ personalities and their writing styles shine through their commentary in the best of ways. We see how they work as writers and it makes them even more lovable/admirable.)

Overall: ***** (4 stars.  I really like this book!)

Inspired by their collaborative website, The Merry Sisters of Fate (merryfates.com), The Curiosties showcases quickly written pieces of short fiction by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff. The stories tend to fall within their collective genre of paranormal or speculative Young Adult fiction, but each author contributes stories which refuse to be contained by one genre or even – as the amusingly hand-written margin notes point out – by their own distinctive writing styles. Brenna, Tessa, and Maggie share their thought processes, inspiration, and their opinions about each others’ work, and we get to see how their voices have changed and developed as a result of their literary friendship. For readers who pick up The Curiosities as fans of one particular author, there will be plenty of familiar themes and fixations within these pages. But it’s the unexpected pieces, the stories which surprised the writer, and which her friends admit to wishing they had written first, which make this collection so valuable to admirers of these authors and their subjects.

I was only slightly familiar with the authors of The Curiosities when I started reading. I’ve shared my high opinion of Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys already, and I remember getting carried away into the dark and intricate world of Yovanoff’s The Replacement a couple of Novembers ago, but I wasn’t particularly well versed in their bodies of work and I’d never read Gratton at all (though I wish I had – she’s great!). My ignorance didn’t really matter, though, because through witty banter with her friends and wise thoughts on writing, history, magic, etc, each writer bares her personality and makes her voice as distinct as if we knew her personally. The informal tone of this collection sets off some of the truly dark stuff which it contains, and you get to read a well balanced combination of YA anthology and “How We Write” essay, all in one attractive package.

The stories themselves are excellent fun, provided that you enjoy the sort of writing done by these women. While the pieces are varied in terms of plot and format, and while the order in which they’re presented keeps the pace from dragging, they are resolutely stories for Young Adult readers who like elements of the paranormal; the esoteric; the sinister; and the weird. (A note: by “Young Adult reader”, I refer to anyone, young or adult or somewhere in between, who enjoys YA fiction.) You will find monsters and creatures to suit every taste, retellings of legends and stories prompted by fairy tales, good old fashioned ghost stories, horrifying visions of the future, and even some stories featuring no technical magic at all but which embody a perfectly chilling sense of dread. You will read about highschool, college, alternative historical settings, the ancient north, and steampunk or sc-fi cityscapes. There is kissing, killing, and wit galore.

What you won’t find in The Curiosities is grown-up, tightly plotted, examinations of every day life; at least, there are no mundane sensibilities left to carry a story on their own. But themes get heavy in this collection, underneath the strange and beautiful surface. Maggie’s pieces about geniuses behaving badly and legends existing in our world deal with questions of power, loyalty, and how to spend the time we have given to us. These are questions which The Raven Boys also handled very well. Tessa’s tales about monsters and complicated spells examine the importance of bravery in the face of sorrow and how traditions shape our lives. And Brenna’s stories about psycho killers tricked by even-more-psychotic killers, lonely ghosts, and wishes gone awry reveal the capacity for darkness which waits within all of us, and that desperate need for understanding which can save us when we’re young. These ladies know what they’re doing, and they do it well: telling us eternal truths hidden deep within compelling stories which appeal to our sense of the macabre and the fantastic.

Archived Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 12, 2012

Star Ratings
Characters: *** (3 Stars)
Character Development: ** (2 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: *** (3 Stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Young Adult

I have very mixed feelings about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The concept of the novel is pretty cool; Ransom Riggs collected an assortment of vintage photos – seemingly unrelated despite the theme of incredible creepiness which binds them together – and wrote a novel about their subjects and settings. This appealed to me particularly because I am one of those losers who buys photos of old fashioned strangers from antique stores and yard sales. It’s a Lemony Snicket-style hobby and, in a way, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children managed to take that fascination in its own unique direction. At no point did I feel like he was ripping off Snicket or any other story of the sort. However, the creepy photos and interesting concept could not entirely make up for the novel’s disappointing turn of plot about one third of the way through.

The first few chapters of the book were amazing. The photos were mysterious, Jacob’s grandfather was a compelling character, and I found myself entirely engaged in the plot which started to unfold. Creepy Floridian landscapes! Unexplained floating children! Stories of monsters told by an old man with an armory in his basement! The woes of unappealing employment for teenagers! It was a promising start. When Jacob traveled to a remote island in Wales in his attempt to find the mysterious house which contained secrets from his grandfather’s childhood, I was all prepared for one of the best ghost stories of all time. The setting was atmospheric and the Welsh idiosyncrasies were amusing and when our intrepid protagonist began exploring the ruined house on his own I was nearly hopping with suspense. The abandoned orphanage, jars of suspicious stuff in a basement, the hidden stash of increasingly creepy photos: it all pointed to a chilling romp with some dead kids.

Then, immediately after the book really started to impress me, everything started going downhill. Instead of ghosts, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has time travel. Time travel is cool, I suppose, and the Home itself was interesting, but after such a creepy start I didn’t want to read what was essentially, The X Men As Children During World War II. Not only was the introduction of “time loops” a little anti-climactic, it wasn’t explained in sufficient detail to be believable. Yes, I know, time travel isn’t exactly realism, but I mean that the sudden turn of events was jarring and did not mesh with the novel’s beginning. I enjoyed reading about the peculiar children themselves; their powers, their lives at the Home, and their guardian. But from that point on the plot grew more and more far fetched, introducing evil mutated “peculiars,” under-developed villains called “wights,” U-boats, and a new plot which grew too big to be contained in one book. In fairness, Riggs is working on a sequel right now so the story has some time to grow into itself. I still couldn’t shake my disappointment, though, as I read on towards the end wishing that the book had stayed its original course and gone for creepy rather than action packed.

So who should read this book? I would recommend it to people who like Young Adult fantasies and aren’t easily frightened, but who also don’t mind a far-fetched story. I would recommend it more heartily to those folks like me who love weird old photos and unexplained shadows, to vintage fanatics, and to fans of Lemony Snicket and John Green (Snicket for the atmosphere, Green for the protagonist and narrative style). I would not suggest picking up this book if you are easily frightened, because there are some chilling descriptions and one ridiculously scary photo of a Mall Santa staring at some children with dead, pupil-less eyes. I just wish that the book in its entirety had managed to be as haunting as some of its better images and ideas.

Archived Review: The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on November 5, 2011

Star Ratings
Characters:**** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:***** (5 stars)
Writing:*** (3 stars)
Overall:****(4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 14 and up. (Frightening ideas and some graphic violence.)

Hello my poor neglected readers.  I had fully intended to review The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray in time for Hallowe’en, as it is one of my favorite scary books of all time, but alas I was figuratively drowning in school work, literally drowning in tea, and quite unable to form coherent sentences until now.  However, November is an appropriately creepy month – especially here in Scotland where it gets dark by four in the afternoon – and the novel does indeed take place in November, so I’ll review it now.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray has a slightly deceptive title; it suggests a ghost story about a young woman with a strange name.  In fact, the book is less about a single haunting and more of a full-on supernatural onslaught in an alternative-history Victorian London.

The main character is a seventeen year old “wych-hunter” named Thaniel Fox, and he is one of those teenage protagonists blessed with an ability to perform any task a thousand times better than his adult counterparts.  Thaniel and his mentor in wych-hunting Cathaline (in anticipation of your questions: No, not a single character in this novel has a normal name) stalk and destroy immensely terrifying creatures called wych-kin who roam the streets of London.  London itself is different than it was historically in Victorian times: in an act of steampunk warfare the Prussians have bombed it from their airships roughly thirty years before our story takes place, and in certain parts of the city the wych-kin roam about unchecked.  When stalking a cradlejack – a monster who steals and eats babies, infecting anyone it bites – Thaniel comes across a traumatized girl his own age with amnesia.  This is Alaizabel Cray, and she is possessed by a cranky, super evil old wych.  The story centers around Thaniel, Alaizabel, and Cathaline as they learn about Alaizabel’s past and realise that much darker forces are at work than the monstrous wych kin who are growing in numbers too ghastly to think about.

Some readers may be confused by the extremely varied ratings I’ve given each aspect of this novel.  The writing and character development of this book aren’t too excellent, you can tell that the author was still in his early twenties when he wrote it and his style hasn’t been perfected yet.  He overuses certain words, like “clotted” and “lacquered,” to remind the reader how very dark and scary his version of London can be. As for the characters, each person is unique and fascinating but sometimes they are a little too perfect.  With the single notable exception of Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer), no teenager could believably be so proficient in this many fighting techniques, magical applications, and generally bad-ass skills as Thaniel.  He’s a likable character, levelheaded and cool, but when I first read this book I was fifteen years old and even then he seemed a little unrealistic.  The same goes for Alaizabel Cray; she is sweet, clever, brave, and sympathetic every time she speaks or acts, and it doesn’t quite add up.  Were I possessed by an evil spirit, I’d be grumpy and tired.  The minor characters are more believable, they each have their own strengths and foibles which round out the cast quite nicely.

Despite Wooding’s occasionally questionable writing, the plot in The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray is one of the best I’ve read in YA fiction.  He doesn’t just center around the relationship between Alaizabel and Thaniel, he writes a twisting, high-stakes tale which encompasses all of Victorian London from the police, to madhouses, to aristocratic cults, to beggar kingdoms, to serial killers.  The wych-kin themselves are each described in spectacular detail; there are new creatures the reader learns about in nearly every chapter and each is grosser and more sinister than the last.  Scrawny cradle-robbers with needle sharp teeth; the drowned splashing noises of the Draugs’ footsteps as they stalk their victims, the air growing cold and salty as they approach; the terrifying spectre which fills Alaizabel’s entire bedroom as it looms in darkness over her bed: this is the stuff of nightmares.  Once you have read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, you will never look behind yourself more than twice when walking at night, no matter what you might hear in your wake, for fear of getting devoured by Rawhead – the invisible stalker who only strikes on the third glance.

Chris Wooding has invented horrors I couldn’t even dream up myself, and I am notorious for screaming in my sleep from night-terrors.  The wych-kin are truly traumatizing, but the villainous humans aren’t much nicer.  The mysterious Fraternity – that dark cult which causes Alaizabel to become possessed as they carry out a nefarious scheme for power – is made up of corrupt policemen, cruel wych-hunters, and one truly nasty doctor who controls the city’s insane asylum.  Their rituals are creepy and completely immoral, and although Wooding’s writing style sometimes detracts from the story he is extremely talented at inventing and describing magic in an original but comprehensible manner.  The system of wards and summoning in the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was impressed by his inventiveness.

With the Fraternity and wych-kin for antagonists, those characters who remain in the moral middle-ground are evil enough themselves.  Devil-boy Jack, a psychic little boy with his eyes sewn shut, has absolutely no qualms about letting his friends die for the sake of a plan.  And he’s one of the kinder anti-heroes.  Stitchface is one of Wooding’s greater creations. He’s a serial killer who drives a hansom cab at night, wearing a woman’s wig over his mask: a gaping face sewn together from the skin of prostitutes he murders.  Yup, Stitchface is one of the good guys; the villains and monsters are way more horrifying than your regular psycho killer.  Hence, my age recommendation of fourteen and above.  “Not a bedtime book for those of a nervous disposition,” wrote The Times in its review of Alaizabel Cray, and I would have to agree.  Read this book if you want to be terrified, and if you don’t mind feeling entirely on edge when walking home at night, because you’ll soon be counting the number of times you look over your shoulder and jumping at every noise.

So, why should you read The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, even though the writing is a bit iffy?  The setting is vivid, the plot is engaging, it features one of the best duels I’ve ever read, and the story is entirely unique.  It being a Young Adult novel, one could probably finish it in an evening, and that would be a November night well spent.   It’s an atmospheric novel, perfect for this time of year when the nights are long and the weather dreary.  Go and read it quickly, before November is over!