THE BOOK EATERS by Sunyi Dean

The Book Eaters
By Sunyi Dean
Tor Books — 2nd August 2022
ISBN: 9781250810182
— Hardcover — 304 pp.


Scattered across the planet, living on the edges of human settlement, are the remnants of a people brought to Earth long ago by a now departed alien Collector. Their purpose: to catalog the works and thoughts of humanity and await the Collector’s return. Their ancient origin and duty misted in myth, they remain uncertain if the Collector will ever return, and worry about the decrease in females born to continue their lines.

Most of their kind are Book Eaters. After weaning off milk, they consume books of all types, able to gain the knowledge of the tome through its consumption. Their brains unable to process language through the act of writing, this swallowing of already written text is their only means of cataloging the throughs of humanity. However, some among them are born without the capacity for nourishment through books. These rare births instead wean from milk into a rapacious thirst for minds. Such Mind Eaters are born with a long tongue that can be used to penetrate into a victim to suck a brain dry of thought and knowledge, leaving shells behind.

In their varied cultures across the Earth, some of the Book Eaters choose to destroy any Mind Eaters born among them, others allow them to prey upon humanity. Families in enclaves spread throughout the UK rely on giving their Mind Eaters a drug that one family developed tto allow them to consume books instead. However, it still does not reduce their hunger for brains. Such Mind Eaters are taken as Dragons to be trained and kept in check by Knights. The Knights are Book Eaters taken as children from among all the UK Families, forming an organization that historically only served to protect women transported between enclaves for arranged marriages that allow the Book Eater lines to continue.These politics suddenly change when a revolt for control of power occurs within the Family who holds the secret for producing the drug for Mind Eaters.

Devon is a young Book Eater from a Family that has settled the wilds of the Yorkshire moors. She’s now on the run from her Patriarch, and from the Family of her last husband, searching for the survivors of the revolt and try to secure some of the now unavailable drug from them. She desperately needs the drug because she has her five year old son Cai with her, a boy born a Mind Eater, for whom she now has been forced to find prey. In roughly alternating chapters, Sunyi Dean writes about the quest for freedom in Devon’s present – her acts of love to save her son – and the events of Devon’s past, from childhood, that brought her to being a pariah.

The Book Eaters is an inventive dark fantasy that dazzles with empowering themes of devotion and defiance. It’s also a story about the monstrous things that someone could find themselves doing for survival when circumstances and systems of oppression tighten in.

As a child, Devon has a devoted reverence for her Family, her patriarch, and their rules. Such naïveté leads to disenfranchised horror when Devon discovers just how little justice there is in the political system of her people, how powerless and exploited she will be no matter how closely she obeys, no matter how meekly subservient she acts. Faced with this realization, Devon chooses defiance in every way she can, and narrows the allegiance of her devotion to only herself, and her children – who are equally taken for exploitation by the Families.

Forced into marriages and bearing children who are taken from her, Devon defies and bears punishment, up until a possible route of freedom becomes open to her from an unlikely familial source from her past. Dean’s structure for The Book Eaters makes it a compelling read for discovery of how Devon ended up in the situation she is in at the novel’s start. And there are some lovely little twists and clever double-agent-type situations that enhance the fun of the plot and its action.

Well written secondary characters also put some extra accomplishment into the novel. Cai is a perfect mixture of endearing innocent childhood and creepy terror, at one moment himself (a typical five-year-old), and the next moment one of the minds he has eaten (e.g. an elderly pastor.) Dean also creates a cast of intriguing and varied villains, from those who harm through their cultural privilege to those who have been shaped by the Knights or those who have revolted against the establishment to only form a cult of power for themselves in its place. None are purely evil, or purely good. Despite its fantastic plot, The Book Eaters is a novel rooted in a moral realism where people (even if not human) are formed by their circumstances or experiences and pushed toward helpful or harmful actions.

Born into this type of world, Devon is striving to find another option where the system no longer necessitates monstrosity. Thankfully, she is not alone on this path. Dean has two wonderful characters to help aid her journey. One, Hester, is a survivor of the revolt in the Family responsible for the Mind Eater drug. Her story is a terrific parallel to Devon’s own journey, and she develops into a perfect romantic interest for Devon. Devon is also helped by the kind hearted, video-game loving, brother of one of her husbands. He’s also a notable character in terms of being asexual, which makes sense given how closely male sexuality is tied to oppression and power in the UK Book Eater society.

I’m definitely eager to reading more in the future by Dean. Her straight-forward prose makes for a breezy read, yet is still filled with rich atmospheric imagery. The well-paced plot and shifting back and forth between times works very well, with a seeming simplicity that masterfully hides the complex execution needed to go into such careful plotting.

But I’m also really hopeful to read more from this Book Eater universe. I’m not talking about a series per se, or even a continuation of Devon’s story, or Cai’s. It would also be fantastic to see other stories and other characters around the world or time periods, built from the novel’s premise. Either way, please give us more.

The Book Eaters is now out in North America from Tor Books, and Harper Voyager will be releasing it in the UK later this month. If I still haven’t convinced potential readers out there that this should go on your to read list, go check out this second opinion from Shazzie at Fantasy Book Critic. She points out some details I wholeheartedly agree with but didn’t get into here, such as Dean’s fun use of classic and modern fairy tale passages as context for each chapter.

If you live in the US, please check out the giveaway I’m doing for a copy of The Book Eaters. Finally, be on the lookout here for an interview with Sunyi Dean, coming soon.


BOOK GIVEAWAY! THE BOOK EATERS by Sunyi Dean

I happen to have an extra copy of The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean from Tor Books.

I considered cutting it into strips to consume, but thought I’d run a giveaway instead to share this superb debut fantasy with someone else.

OFFICIAL BLURB:

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales and cautionary stories.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

The Book Eaters is a darkly sweet pastry of a book about family, betrayal, and the lengths we go to for the ones we love. A delicious modern fairy tale.

Christopher Buehlman

My review of the novel will be coming here soon. But in the meantime, please enter to win this copy.

Here’s what you have to do to enter:

  • Have a US mailing address
  • Follow this blog
  • Have a Twitter account and reply to my Tweet of the giveaway here.

The winner will be chosen randomly from the Tweet replies and will be contacted via Twitter.

Ends Friday 5th August at 8PM ET

MALPERTUIS by Jean Ray (Translated by Iain White, Edited by Scott Nicolay)

“…The combination of classic Gothic Horror with the Weird subgenre, in a unique form of the haunted house novel, sounded perfectly tuned to my interests. Even with a foundation of mythological familiarity that was largely lost on me, Malpertuis succeeded wildly in entertaining and impressing…”

Read my entire review of Malpertuis HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Wakefield Press – May 2021 – Paperback – 256 pp.

CHILDREN OF DEMETER by E.V. Knight

Children of Demeter
By E.V. Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — August 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331
— Paperback — 186 pp.


Sociologist Sarah Bisset needs her sabbatical not just for an academic recharge, but to find herself again following tragedy and betrayal. Her husband has died in a car accident, and with him in the vehicle was the mistress she didn’t know he had. She uses the insurance money to buy an infamous property in rural Wisconsin, a destination for her sabbatical research, but moreover an escape from her routine life and a home soured with memories of her duplicitous husband.

The purchased farmhouse and its lands are the former homestead of the Children of Demeter, a mysterious counterculture commune that led a seemingly peaceful hippie existence within the small community before disappearing overnight without trace or explanation in 1973. Partnering with a podcast that features stories of the unexplained (that is run by the son of her longtime friend) Sarah sets out to investigate the history of the agrarian hippie group and its enigmatic leader, interviewing longtime residents of the town and scope out the property, its lake, and the adjacent caves. Each bit of an answer they find only brings more questions.

Already confused by a personal relationship clouded in deception, Sarah begins to notice oddities around the house that begin to lead her to further question her identity, and her sanity. The secrets of the property and the twenty-five mostly women and children who once called it home come coupled with inexplicable oddities: signs of someone – or something – living in the basement, barren land where nothing will grow, a psychedelic mural depicting a strange creature coming from the lake, and a hostile neighbor who appears to want a dark past kept hidden.

I previously read and reviewed E.V. Knight’s The Fourth Whore from Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title that impressed me in its feminist themes and vibrant writing despite not being the genre of story that I’m particularly partial to. The plot of that novel necessitated a harsh, almost vitriolic tone and style, making a novel that while thought provoking and high quality, wasn’t ‘fun’ to read, or bewitching in that pleasurable way that some horror can do for me. Horror like a gothic ghost story. When I read the plot synopsis of Children of Demeter I knew this would probably be something I’d adore, a beloved sub-genre in the hands of an author who writes engagingly and who can place powerful feminist themes in an interesting light. Children of Demeter didn’t disappoint that expectation.

The mysteries of a possible haunting, the secrets of an old property and the uncertain nature of this cult of fertility and harvest make for a classically captivating gothic horror. Knight puts an interesting spin on this by tying it in with psychedelic hippie culture. At heart of the novel is not something of ghosts, monsters, or the true story of the cult’s past. It’s the nature of Sarah, her identity as a person, as a woman. It’s a psychological, or perhaps even a social, horror story, though those other paranormal elements do get their due, secrets become revealed. The journey toward that is just coupled to Sarah’s rocky path to self-rediscovery, both literal and metaphorical.

The only aspect of the novel that didn’t really work for me was the podcast angle. As a concept of the plot it works fine, the issue becomes Knight’s incorporation of the podcast dialogue into the novel. There is a cheesiness to the podcast presentation that takes away from the tone of the novel and Sarah’s point of view. It also ends up serving as a way to reveal information about the past quickly in the form of interviews. But, that doesn’t have as satisfying an effect on the reader than if these details were divulged in another format than a verbatim oral transcript.

Aside from these moments, the creepy slow build up and the ultimate climax of the novel play out pitch perfectly in a successful combination of mythology, classic horror, and modern themes. Knight has won the Bram Stoker award already for horror, but after reading this I feel as though she’d also have great things to contribute to the mystery/suspense genre. Children of Demeter could almost classify in that realm over horror. If mythology, mysterious cults and gothic tones are among your cherished elements of fiction, check this one out.


THE MONSTER OF ELENDHAVEN by Jennifer Giesbrecht

The Monster of Elendhaven
By Jennifer Giesbrecht
Tor.com Publishing — September 2019
ISBN: 9781250225689
— Paperback — 160 pp.


A decaying, disease-infested city in the frigid North, Eldenhaven is populated by many sorts of unsavory characters, profiting on the misery of others as the city apocalyptically slouches on the edge of the sea into grimy ruin. But stalking among them is a monster, a man – a creature. Born of Eldenhaven: its magic, its perversity, its cruelty, this monster has given himself the name Johann, and he thrives on the messy violence of taking lives, unstoppable. With hazy to no memories of his existence before he washed up on the docks of the city, Johann’s lust for murder seems beyond his control, or escape, for he does not seem able to die.

One day, Johann observes another monster, Florian Leickenbloom, a young man who can influence the minds of others. A magician. Coming from one of the former leading (founding) houses of Eldenhaven, Florian couldn’t look any different from the rough lower-class edges of Johann. But beneath outward appearances, Johann can see the vile nature, something maybe more darkly powerful than himself, and something also beautiful. Together, Johann and Florian begin to discover one another, forming a twisted relationship that spins with threads of their pasts, and a tragedy surrounding Florian’s deceased twin sister Flora. Meanwhile, a woman named Eleanor has arrived in Eldenhaven, in search of Florian and looking for monsters to slay.

I’ve been watching a bunch of the TV program Oddities recently, and one of the things that I appreciate about the people featured on the show is how they find beauty in the dark and macabre, even in cold, indifferent tragedy or horror. It’s a quality that attracts many to the horror genre as fans, a way of seeing and remembering the human inherent in mortality and even within the monstrous. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a book for that sort of person. Gruelingly dark at times, the novella features a Victorianesque gothic atmosphere brought alive by some of the most luscious prose I’ve seen in the genre. It mixes modern in with the antiquated vibe, making this feel a lot like steampunk, though without the technology aspect.

The blurb by Joe Hill on the cover is no exaggeration. Giesbrecht writes poetically and honestly no matter what the topic of focus: architecture, a blood-splattering murder, a character’s outfit, a rape. The prose isn’t for the squeamish, and those wishing to avoid reading certain dark topics might wish to stay away. It is a story from the point of view of a serial killer, after all. But, nothing of this is gratuitous. And it is not merely just Grim Dark. Beneath the moments of violence (physical or mental) is a study of characters, a study of relationships among people who have been broken, in a city coming apart. Even amongst all of that darkness sits something beautiful, something of love.

As twisted as the relationship is between Florian and Johann, and as awful as they each individually are, together they hold the possibility of redemption for one another. Saying too much about this would spoil the major revelations of The Monster of Elendhaven, but the bubbling eroticism between these two represents a fascinating study on the question of power imbalances in relationships. Who is the exploiter and who is the exploited between the two is not so clear. And, as wrong as so much is about their relationship, it has the power to make some things more right. But will it? And is it ‘okay’ if it does?

Like Oddities, the novella forces its characters (and thus the reader) to look at things that might be uncomfortable and horrendous and consider what can be learned from it, or how something gorgeous might be made from it. That is one of the things that the horror genre does so well. The ending to The Monster of Elendhaven doesn’t seem to neatly wrap things up or give answers to these questions as some readers might crave. There is definitely room here for Giesbrecht to take and resolve things further, and I really hope that she does return to this world and its characters.

I read The Monster of Elendhaven back in October, a perfect fit for the Halloween season. Just getting to a review of it now and thinking about it, I would be just as happy reading it any time of the year. I also read it back-to-back with Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, another dark offering from Tor.com Publishing I’d recommend. I plan to also feature that here soon while also covering its sequel Harrow the Ninth. If you happened to read those novels of The Locked Tomb series already and enjoyed them, I think you’d likewise enjoy Jennifer Giesbrecht’s novella.


The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538154
368 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The elusive specter had apparently never had sufficient identity for a legend to crystallize about it, and after a time the Boynes had laughingly set the matter down to their profit-and-loss account, agreeing that Lyng was one of the few houses good enough in itself to dispense with supernatural enhancements.”
– from Afterwood, by Edith Wharton

While I really enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House for taking a literary, realist approach to the ‘ghost story’, I have to say it was delicious to read something with ‘supernatural enhancements’ of the literal and classically eerie kind.

Nestled in the isolated woods of Virginia, a creepy estate named Axton House with rumors of a ghost. Its eccentric and increasingly reclusive owner, Ambrose, suddenly dead. A suicide. At the same age and in the exact manner as his equally eerie father years ago. The butler, the last remaining servant of Axton House, vanished. The nearest neighbors recall the bizarre group of men who gathered at Axton House each year just prior to Christmas, upon the winter solstice.Ambrose’s lawyer greets the only recently discovered distant relative who has inherited the Axton House estate. The relative, named only as “A.” in the story, arrives with a younger mute companion, an Irish teen named Niamh with bright dyed hair and a punk style that contrasts here silence.

In communication with an “Aunt Liza” back in England, A. and Niamh begin to explore the physical estate (from the haunted mansion to a garden maze) and the history of its owners and their associates to discover the secrets of Axton House and a special all-seeing crystal eye.

The novel is written unconventionally, in a way that at first I feared would be gimmicky and annoying. Thankfully it felt neither. The story is related through a variety of records: diary entries, dream journals, Niamh’s notepad, letters, and transcripts of audio and video recordings. This creates a very effective situation where the reader is given exquisite details, but only in very limited contexts. These details need to be pulled out and fit together, and one must equally remember what isn’t being told or shown. Hence it is like a puzzle where you don’t know what the big picture will ultimately show.

The press describing this novel with words such as ‘clever’ ‘gothic’ and ‘fun’ are spot on and succinctly sum up the sheer joy that is The Supernatural Enhancements. This book truly felt like reading a children’s story again, but with adult themes within, for the ultimate effect of it all stands on the challenge of puzzle solving and the thrill of unexpected chills. Full of cryptography (messages one can attempt to decode) in various forms, each discovery only opens further mysteries and surprises.

Honestly, not everything was a surprise for me, I easily foresaw the role of certain characters. However, there were enough unexpected revealings of plot and twists to keep me pleased. I don’t want to ruin the nature of the secrets, but I can safely explain that I really enjoyed the union of the haunted/fantastic with a dose of scientific (neurobiology and quantum physics really) theory or speculation. This science element verges at the edge of actual scientific speculation and pseudoscience, the perfect spot for this kind of story.

The measured placement of The Supernatural Enhancements at this zone between the fantastic and that speculative region just beyond the limits of what science currently can describe is referenced throughout the novel with mention of The X-Files and Mulder & Scully’s relationship. The story is set in  the early years of the show’s run, and features other pop-culture references of the time as well. Just as The X-Files references the gothic, occult fantasy of the first half of the novel, a lovely reference to the classic PC game The Secret of Monkey Island gives a perfect nod to the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving aspects of the second half.

The Mulder & Scully metaphor can also be extended in some respects to the relationship between A. and Niamh. This is not in the sense of faith vs. doubt that the two X-Files characters embodied. Rather, it is in the ambiguity of the emotions in their relationships. Niamh is described as being there to protect A. Yet, A. also shows the drive and ability to protect Niamh. They also obviously have deep connection and the apparent potential for romance, but their relationship seems to be platonic. This ambiguity that Cantero uses with A. and Niamh is absolutely brilliant, particularly given the novel’s ultimate close.

I really can’t think of much that I didn’t enjoy about The Supernatural Enhancements. It is entertaining, it has a good amount of depth, it is clever and challenging in the puzzle solving aspects, it is just all-around well written. Given the inclusion of non-standard elements like mazes and cryptograms and the like, I’d definitely recommend getting this in actual hard copy. I’m really eager to see the cover in reality and not just on a screen too. This is a book that I’m getting my own physical copy of to hold and enjoy again.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Doubleday via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

NOTE: Ending 28th July, 5 copies of this book are available to win from Doubleday through the Goodread’s Giveaway Program. Go here to sign up for the giveaway or to add this to your To Read list.

Cover reveal: MR. WICKER by Maria Alexander

I’m happy to take part in the cover reveal for this upcoming release from Raw Dog Screaming Press. The gothic elements of the plot description and the combination of the sinister and books is right up my ally at least. The cover design by Ryan Rice has me intrigued with the melting wax-like text and the subtle freakishness of the shadows: a reversal, a change in the number of books stacked and the bird’s postures. I’m looking forward to checking this out, and if it sounds like your kind of thing, you should check it out too. You can also sign up for a chance to win a copy through Goodreads.

Cover created by artist Ryan Rice

Debuting 9/16 • PRE-ORDER for $2 off

Mr. Wicker Cover

Mr. Wicker by Maria Alexander

Alicia Baum is missing a deadly childhood memory. Located beyond life, The Library of Lost Childhood Memories holds the answer. The Librarian is Mr. Wicker — a seductive yet sinister creature with an unthinkable past and an agenda just as lethal. After committing suicide, Alicia finds herself before the Librarian, who informs her that her lost memory is not only the reason she took her life, but the cause of every bad thing that has happened to her.

Alicia spurns Mr. Wicker and attempts to enter the hereafter without the Book that would make her spirit whole. But instead of the oblivion she craves, she finds herself in a psychiatric hold at Bayford Hospital, where the staff is more pernicious than its patients.

Child psychiatrist Dr. James Farron is researching an unusual phenomenon: traumatized children whisper to a mysterious figure in their sleep. When they awaken, they forget both the traumatic event and the character that kept them company in their dreams — someone they call “Mr. Wicker.”

During an emergency room shift, Dr. Farron hears an unconscious Alicia talking to Mr. Wicker—the first time he’s heard of an adult speaking to the presence. Drawn to the mystery, and then to each other, they team up to find the memory before it annihilates Alicia for good. To do so they must struggle not only against Mr. Wicker’s passions, but also a powerful attraction that threatens to derail her search, ruin Dr. Farron’s career, and inflame the Librarian’s fury.

After all, Mr. Wicker wants Alicia to himself, and will destroy anyone to get what he wants. Even Alicia herself.

 

Praise for Mr. Wicker

“Elegant chills, genuine awe, and true tragedy are all ingredients in the spell cast by Maria Alexander’s Mr. Wicker. Anyone who has encountered Maria’s short stories surely expects her first novel to be extraordinary, and she doesn’t disappoint. Mr. Wicker is rich, lovely, and deeply unnerving.” —Lisa Morton, author of Malediction and Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

The Quick, by Lauren Owen
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00H4EM4WW
528 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Lauren Owen’s debut novel is a difficult one to assign a rating. Overall it is an above-average book and will be of interest to many readers. However, the enjoyment of it I think will vary quite substantially from reader to reader, in a not-too-easy to predict fashion. If the plot (including the ‘twist’) is something you find intriguing, you should definitely check this out. It is extremely well-written and Gothic-moody, but its execution and the ultimate direction of its plot may cause some frustrations.

Some have considered discussion of what this book is about to be a spoiler. Given the implications of the title, I don’t take this to be the case. Though not mentioned in the novel’s summary ‘blurb’, I think it unfair to try and rope people into reading a story they may have no interest in. Knowing what the story ultimately about doesn’t spoil much, in fact it probably makes the surprise transition from the first third of the book to the remainder far easier to go along with. So without further ado, if you REALLY REALLY don’t want to know anything more about the novel, you’ll have to stop reading.

Potential Spoilers Follow

“The Quick” starts off as a fabulously engrossing Gothic story about a secret society, and of a sister and brother living in a large empty home in the absence of their parents, under the care of a servant as their father is away. The first third of the novel focuses upon the brother, grown up and at university, as he makes roommates, friends, and eventually romantic ties with a gentleman he meets there. Throughout this portion of the book the story is filled with a literary richness, excellent characterization, continued foreboding Gothic tensions, and drives forward certain expectations on how one suspects the plot may unfold.

These expectations are then shattered when tragedy strikes and the focus of the novel shifts to bring in the identity of this secret society brought up back in the prologue. Vampires. The remainder of the novel is a story about vampires, what the society is about, why they have done what they’ve done, and what the ramifications will be for both the brother and the sister. After a portion of the novel written in the form of diary by a man associated with the vampire society (to explain their characteristics and background history to the reader) the novel continues the ‘action’ of the plot by shifting back to the sister, who now arrives in search of her brother.

The dual focus, split in the book, between the brother and the sister is not a major problem. With the sudden plot twist of bringing in vampires, this split focus is perfectly valid. The shattering of reader expectations based on the first third of the book isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. It’s great to have cliched expectations shattered. The problem becomes when one potential expected plotline is simply replaced with another completely different one that begins to feel even more cliched and predictable. Sadly, I feel this is largely what happens with “The Quick”.

Vampire novels have been done to death. Here it is made somewhat unique by giving it a strong classic literary and Gothic style as opposed to the more recent takes on the subject. The addition of these vampires in an organized society led by one particularly visionary individual gives the vampire plotline even greater potential to take on something new in this novel. This individual does not merely look on the normal “Quick” humanity with ambivalence or disdain. Rather he views them with a sort of pity, claiming a desire to use the society’s powers and influence to not simply survive and feed, but to try and find ways to improve and better humankind. This is a very interesting concept.

Unfortunately, the concept is never developed. Instead the novel becomes a rather standard (though consisting of great prose) novel of fighting against the vampire society’s plans. The supposed ‘well-meaning’ intentions of the vampire leader turn out to be disingenuous, mainly a victim of power corrupting, turning him into a typical vampire monster and thereby negating any potential exploration of a vampire doing great things while also having to rely on predation.

Those who simply adore well written Gothic novels, fans of vampire fiction, and the like will enjoy this book greatly, even if they don’t love it. Those unsuspecting and disinterested in the vampire plot may feel misled, and those that fell in love with the literary beauty of the first third of the novel may become disappointed by its turn into rather predictable genre fiction, albeit with a continued ‘literary’ style of prose.

Three Stars out of Five

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story,
by Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
ASIN: B00BSBR382
337 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Though I finished it a few days before writing this, it was hard to determine what to say exactly about this sophomore novel from Setterfield. On the one hand, it is written well, almost lyrically in spots, but on the other hand the story never captivated me. Part of my ambivalence while reading and upon completing this novel stemmed from its description. It is not a ghost story. I don’t think there is any way to really interpret it as a ghost story other than aspects of it are haunting and that the protagonist is indeed ‘haunted’. I may have been more receptive if I hadn’t started this expecting something quite different.

Though titled Bellman & Black, this only concerns the second half of the book, really. The novel is really about Bellman, the protagonist, from a young age until his death. There is the eagerness and vitality of his youth, sexually and professionally, that is perhaps driven by the absence of his father. This youthful drive compels others to pay attention to Bellman, and soon his hard work and vision leads him to industrial success and the start of a family. Upon reaching these heights, Bellman’s world is shattered by the deaths of almost all he holds dear, driving him further into his work, which in the second half involves starting a funeral business that Bellman is inspired to form after a mysterious encounter (perhaps imagined) with a Mr. Black. Bellman’s world becomes completely occupied with his industrious spirit and desire for profit. Forsaking friends and family he uses the business of death to amass funds that drive him into further fears of losing all he has, now to his mysterious and absent ‘partner’ Black.

The reality of Bellman’s life (and the intersection of the fantastic in the form of Mr. Black, who is perhaps conjured in Bellman’s mind alone) is symbolized by the dominance throughout the novel of rooks (related to crows). In childhood, Bellman once threw a rock at a rook, which killed it. This event seems to haunt Bellman, and in the fantastic element of the story, it is implied that Mr. Black is an embodiment of the rook, seeking amusement and revenge for what was done to their kind. As the rock traced an arc in the sky leaving a dead bird, so too does Bellman’s life arc to a height only to then drop to inevitable death.

These ideas are actually quite good, and Setterfield’s descriptions of rooks are the highlights of the novel. However, the fantasy and the reality never intersect enough to work effectively. The majority of the novel is taken up with the reality of Bellman’s business dealings, and to a lesser extent relationships. The novel thus becomes a historical fiction detailing a man whose life becomes an obsession over business and profit, a combination between “A Christmas Carol” and “Martin Dressler”. This type of novel has been done frequently, and Setterfield doesn’t add anything particularly new to this aspect. Instead she adds the fantastic slant with the crows and their symbolism, never really settling on whether they are in Bellman’s head alone, or an actual paranormal manifestation in the form of Black.

“Bellman & Black” therefore has a lot of promise, and given the popularity of her first novel (which I haven’t read) I’m sure many will adore this book. I think I would have, had it not been marketed the way it was, and if the Black storyline had been introduced much earlier rather than so much space spent on detailing Bellman’s prowess at industry.

Two Stars out of Five

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Rustication, by Charles Palliser
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393088723
327 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

In British usage, rustication refers to a suspension from university; in the case of this historical mystery novel the rusticated is Richard, the opium-addicted, seventeen year old protagonist, fraught with the sexual urges of youth and the disappointment of his family. Richard’s banishment from school forces him to return to his recently widowed mother and hostile sister, in their newly acquired isolated home in the country.

Mysteries and uncertainties abound for Richard upon his arrival, the mysterious behavior of his mother and sister, the state of the home, the uncertain circumstances of his father’s death. Keeping his own secrets of what transpired at his school to precipitate the rustication, Richard struggles to deal with separation from the poppy and the hostility of his family and their neighbors. Coupled with the strife of family and social relations, the community soon finds evidence of a deranged mind or minds – mutilated animals, and vulgar, cruel letters sent to women. Richard’s troubles and his prying into the oddities of his family and the community eventually throw him into suspicion.

Written as a ‘found’ diary by Richard, one of the aspects of “Rustication” I did appreciate was his voice and character. He is a finely and subtly rendered seventeen year old of the era – or any era for that matter – in that he is extremely inconsistent. At moments he is vulgar, at moments he is a gallant gentleman, at times he is striving to do his best and help his family, at other moments he gives into the euphoria of the opium. And above all he is inconsistent in the objects of his desires, full of hormones, yearning and imagining sexual liaisons with near every eligible female who crosses his path, turning from infatuation to disappointment and disgust, and back to infatuation. Given the remainder of the characters are only seen through Richard’s eyes, they remain rather flat, and unreliably represented throughout. This is unavoidable with the construction of the novel, and I didn’t mind too much, given Richard himself was fascinating to me.

The book is also written with a lovely period Gothic tone that I enjoyed. However, these weren’t enough to bring me anything more than a mild entertainment through reading it. The plot is slow to start, focusing on family conflicts and the social games between various Houses (families) until half way through when the crimes begin to occur. The letters are vulgar indeed, but after one, you get tired of reading their depravity, obviously intentional bad spelling, and you say enough, get on with it. The story ties together the family issues, Richard’s history causing the rustication, and the crimes into one overarching series of scandals, cover-ups, and machinations. It ends up feeling like too much, and yet too little. The perpetrators of the crime don’t come particularly surprisingly and the lack of any other resolution leaves things feeling empty in what is already even a short novel.

Three  Stars out of Five