Review of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

aNHoD Cover 300dpiTitle: A Natural History of Dragons
Author:
 Marie Brennan
Published:
 5 February 2013
Publisher:
 Tor
Genre: fantasy, YA, adventure, mystery
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

The plot of A Natural History of Dragons is a fairly simple one – Lady Isabella Trent, the famous old dragon naturalist, is writing a series of memoirs about her great adventures studying dragons. This is the first. The novel recounts Isabella’s experiences as a precocious, scientifically minded child, which include reading her father’s scientific books in secret, dissecting a dove with her brother’s pen knife, and dressing up as a boy to go on a dragon hunt. Later, as an ambitious, newly married 19-year-old, she slyly manoeuvres her husband Jacob into joining an expedition to study dragons, then fights to get permission to join the expedition as an artist, despite how very, very improper it is for a woman to do such a thing, or for a man to indulge his wife in this way. The expedition takes them to the foreign land of Vystrana, but it turns out to be even more dangerous than they expected, not because of the dragons, but because of the people.

I need not say very much about the worldbuilding either – Isabella is from Scirland, which is Victorian England, with all its stuffy restrictions regarding class, gender and propriety. Vystrana is essentially Eastern Europe.

So, it’s the world we know + dragons in a YA-ish adventure with a good dash of mystery. It’s a nice story, and I know many readers have loved the setting, but I was hoping for a bit more fantasy in my fantasy, and not just because I value its inventiveness. The Victorian culture got on my nerves. Admittedly, this is partly because the worldbuilding is quite well done. Brennan/Isabella never misses an opportunity to tell  us how men and women are expected to behave, what women are not allowed to do and what society thinks of them if they do it anyway, and what the upper class expects from their servants. Lady Trent, writing as an old lady about her younger self, has a very prim and proper tone that alone will never allow you to forget what period you’re in (or rather, what fictional version of an actual period you’re in). It’s as Victorian as a Charles Dickens novel, and far, far easier to read.

But, but, but… This is fantasy, so why does it need to cling so tightly to reality? More importantly, why does it have to reproduce the unappealing sexism and classism that defines the society it’s modelled on? I’ll tackle the class issue first. Isabella and Jacob are from the upper class, and the expedition’s leader, Lord Hilford, is an aristocrat. For all their bravery in chasing after dragons, I don’t think they would get anywhere if they didn’t have servants to carry their bags and cook their meals. Isabella came across as quite a brat when dealing with her personal servant, Dagmira:

she was supposed to be my lady’s maid. I had been afraid of that. She would need to be educated in her duties, starting with the purchase of a bell I could use to summon her when I awoke. I laid that aside for the moment, however, and held up my hand to silence her.

It annoys Isabella that Dagmira, who is a peasant from a small rural village in Vystrana, doesn’t understand the needs and expectations of a well-bred lady from Scirland. She learns the local language mostly so that it’ll be easier to give Dagmira orders. She had expected that there would be a shortage of servants, but is a little shocked to find that there is a shortage of furniture and she doesn’t even a wardrobe to hang her dresses in, so she’ll have to live out of her luggage (the horror!). Again, the characterisation here is excellent, and I do like that Isabella isn’t perfect – she has a lot to learn about travelling, and has yet to have her mind broadened by it. She frustrates me, but then again, imperfect characters are bound to do that. So I’m not a fan of the classism here, but I accept it as part of the story.

I am less forgiving of the sexism, which has more consequences for the story and the reading experience. I can understand that it does a lot to enhance Isabella’s character. As far as her achievements are concerned, it makes her more heroic to know that she overcame all the gender obstacles that stood in her way. However, we’re told at the very beginning that studying dragons is not for the faint-hearted and that little was known about them when Isabella went on her first expedition, so isn’t it enough for her to be a pioneer in this field? That alone makes her courageous, dedicated, and highly intelligent. Why must she battle society as well? Does it make a better story? I’m not sure it does.

I’ll admit that I say this not because I feel sorry for Isabella as a character, but because of how it affects me as a reader. Brennan pushes this feminist agenda very hard for the entire book, and the constant sexism gets tiring. As a product of her society, Isabella irritated me too. She might be the exceptional woman, but Brennan is mindful of where and how she grew up, so Isabella is very aware of propriety and diligently observes it at times, often sounding a bit like a textbook on good behaviour even when she’s being ‘bad’. The plot is also slowed down by this social issue – before Isabella goes anywhere, she submits to her mother’s wishes and spends some time looking for a husband. She marries the first man to catch her eye (which speeds things along, but is a tad convenient), and luckily he’s the kind of person who shares her interests and lets her read what she wants. This is supposed to be heart-warming, but it makes me cringe. Jacob wins the reader’s favour simply because he (usually) treats his wife like an adult instead of a child. It’s wonderful of him in this context, but I can’t shake the knowledge that he gets praised for doing the bare minimum.

I’m also a bit tired of this kind of story, where a smart, brave woman is held up as a marvel because, oh my god, she’s a woman but not a doormat. I wasn’t inspired, only annoyed. Of course, we’re hardly past all of this in real life, where many people still hold very traditional ideas about gender, but speculative fiction gives us the opportunity to imagine a better, more interesting society. I think Marie Brennan wasted that opportunity.

On the positive side, she did a great job depicting Isabella as a person who aspires to be everything that society says she should not be, and dedicates herself to that goal. In fact, I have to admit that the novel as a whole is well executed, regardless of my criticisms about Brennan’s creative choices. Isabella’s stuffy style could have been difficult to read, but in fact it flowed very quickly and easily. It’s also worth noting how well her character is written as someone with a very scientific mind, who tends to have crazy ideas (well, crazy in her society anyway) that she acts on in a very practical manner. The main plot involves not only studying dragons, but unraveling a mystery involving a missing man, a group of smugglers, and strangely aggressive behaviour from the dragons. The science is light but engaging, and of course there’s the beautiful artwork by Todd Lockwood to pull you deeper into the story. Personally, I’m not intrigued enough to read the inevitable sequels, but I don’t doubt that most readers will be charmed.

Up for Review: A Natural History of Dragons (with book art!)

I’ve got a particularly good Up for Review post this fine Monday afternoon. Tor is releasing a beautiful new novel called A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, and they’ve sent me some of the gorgeous book art by Todd Lockwood, including a high-res picture of the cover (which alone should entice fantasy fans):

aNHoD Cover 300dpi

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Tor Books)

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons is published by Tor Books, and will be released on 5 February 2013.

Links
Goodreads
Buy a copy Indiebound I Amazon I Barnes & Noble I BooksAMillion I Book Depository I Powells I Walmart I Overstock I
On the publisher’s website

Marie Brennan

About the Author

Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.

Website
Twitter
Goodreads

 

And now, for Todd Lockwood‘s awesome art

Wolf Drake

Wolf Drake

 
Desert Drake

Desert Drake

Dead DragonDead Dragon

Graveyard Cave

Graveyard Cave

Jacob

Jacob

Laboratory

Laboratory

Ruins

Ruins

Sparkling

Sparkling

Village

Village

Zhagirt Mat

Zhagirt Mat

 

If you want desktop wallpapers featuring the cover, you can find them in a range of sizes on Tor’s website.  I’ve also got some excerpts to share with you too, so keep an eye out!

Review of Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin

Title: Strindberg’s Star
Author: Jan Wallentin
Translator: Rachel Willson-Broyles 
Published: First published October 2010 in Swedish; this edition  to be published 24 May 2012
Publisher: Viking, an imprint of Penguin USA
Genre: thriller, adventure, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

I really loathe having to review books like this. It’s not because it’s bad – this is hardly one of the worst books I’ve read. But even when a book is bad I don’t normally have a problem describing it and explaining how I felt about it and why. Strindberg’s Star however, is both dull and complicated, making it hard to pay attention long enough to scrabble together the information for a decent plot summary, nevermind a thorough articulation of my feelings about the book. I’d like to just give you the short simple version of my review which is this: Strindberg’s Star sounds like a good thriller, but it’s really boring so don’t waste your time. I’m obliged to write a proper review though, so if you want to know more, read on.

Diver Erik Hall is exploring the depths of a flooded mine shaft when he discovers a dead body clutching an ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life. He notifies the authorities about the body, and it instantly becomes a major news story. Everyone assumes it’s a recent murder, but it turns out that the body is far older than expected and has simply been very well preserved. Erik keeps the ankh a secret, but when all the media attention starts dying down, and he uses it as an attempt to get back into the papers.  He tries to get Don Titelman, an expert in religious symbols and Nazi history, to take a look at the artefact.

Don isn’t interested, but when he eventually gives in and goes to see Erik he finds the man’s corpse cooling outside. A secret society was after the ankh, and one of their agents murdered Erik in an attempt to get it. The society ensures that Don is framed for Erik’s murder. During an interrogation at the German Embassy in Sweden, Don and his lawyer Eva Strand are told a remarkable story about the ankh and a corresponding artefact – a star (I just have to mention that I don’t know why the interrogator bothered telling them this very long and complex tale). Both artefacts were studied by the famed scientist and photographer, Nils Strindberg, who discovered that together, the star and ankh could work as a magical map to a shifting location at the North Pole. The treasure and knowledge that can be found at this location is highly sought after.

Don and Eva are inexplicably imprisoned in the German Embassy but manage to escape and go on the run. With nothing but a postcard as a clue to the mystery of the artefacts and the dead man in the mine, Don decides to try and learn more. However, he and Eva are being chased by both the law, and the secret society that had them framed. Now that the ankh has been discovered, the race is on to find its partner – Strindberg’s star – and then travel to the North Pole to see where the map leads.

The adventure is intertwined with history, Norse mythology, fantasy and Nazi secrets. It sounds a lot like a Dan-Brown style mystery-adventure, with its artefacts, secrets and a protagonist like Don. I’ve never read Dan Brown (and never will), but artefacts and conspiracies seem like good ingredients for an entertaining read. Not in this book. The characters are flat, the writing is clunky, and the story tends to be confusing and slow. There’s a lot of long, dense exposition – history lessons and character backgrounds. Some of these are actually interesting or at least easy to read, but with most will make your eyes glaze over. It’s the same with the story as a whole – a few interesting bits amidst many long, dull sections.

Don is pathetic protagonist. He should be great for this story, being an expert in mythology and the Nazis, as well as possessing photographic memory. He can offer endless bits of interesting trivia and find all the fascinating connections between the clues. And yet he’s a dud. You see, Don has some serious childhood trauma, thanks to a grandmother who used to tell him about all the horrific experiments conducted on her in the Nazi concentration camps. Thanks to his memory, Don never forgot a word. To cope, he became a drug addict. Having qualified as a doctor, he is able to prescribe medicines for himself, and he carries around a bag full of pills. He pretty much uses powerful prescription medication to constantly control his state of mind – if he wants to calm down, go to sleep, be more alert, etc. he takes a bunch of pills. He doesn’t even bother with water, he just chews them.

Unfortunately when he goes to Erik Hall’s house to check out the ankh, his mouth is dry with anxiety so he takes some anti-anxiety pills that he’s never tried before and washes them down with some wine he sees on a table. Thanks to this utterly moronic decision, his fingerprints are on the bottle, making it look like he was hanging out with the murder victim, and when the police get to the house they find Don in a drugged stupor kneeling next to the body. It’s hardly surprising that they arrest him, and it’s easy for him to be framed.

This is just the first occasion when Don is too drugged or sick to be of much use. Half the time he seems to be flopping around or falling over – it seems a miracle that he manages to get anything done. He’s in his forties, but most of the time I picture him as a sickly old man.

Then there’s Eva Strand, Don’s attorney and sidekick of sorts. She’s a stiff, formal woman with extremely pale skin and a preference for a 1940s style of clothing. I mention the latter, because at one point while they’re on the run, Don and Eva need to buy new clothes, since their own have been ruined. Don just gets the first decent suit he sees, but despite the fact that they need to keep a low profile, Eva insists on shopping around until she finds the specific type of clothing she’s looking for. Argh… There are some very odd things about Eva too – her excessively pale skin, a stiffness in her joints, and an ability to heal very quickly. Don notices all these things, but doesn’t make much of an effort to enquire about them, even Eva’s healing abilities. For the reader it’s clear that this is somehow important, so it’s annoying that Don is so obtuse.

Eva isn’t the only one with special abilities. The secret society has a beautiful young agent named Elena who seems unnaturally strong for her tiny frame. As a child she had paranormal powers that allowed her to “look into other people’s thoughts, see all their dreams and hopes in distorted, brilliantly coloured forms”. The book doesn’t really explain what this means in practical terms, but we do know that Elena’s powers have been a great advantage to the secret society, at least until they faded away in her teens.

The vague understanding I had of Elena’s powers characterised my understanding of most of the book. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but most of it seemed hazy, indistinct. Like watching a movie but walking in and out of the room all the time. I’ll admit that maybe I was just too bored to concentrate properly, but that in itself is a criticism. This isn’t supposed to be a literary masterpiece or groundbreaking philosophy – I shouldn’t have to work so hard.

Since it’s already a bestseller in Europe, I have to wonder if part of the problem is that it just doesn’t translate well, so that the consequently clunky language serves to dull the novel. So maybe give it a shot if you can read it in the original Swedish, or perhaps one of the other European languages it’s been translated into. But if you’re going to read it in English, give it a miss.

Still want to read Strindberg’s Star? Order a copy from The Book Depository.

Review of The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Title: The Peculiars
Author: Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Published: 1 May 2012
Publisher: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS Books
Genre: YA, adventure, steampunk, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Since she was a child, Lena Mattacascar has been called Peculiar. She has unusually long hands and feet, and each of her fingers has an extra knuckle. “[S]igns of goblinism”, the doctor said, and her grandmother never hesitated to tell her what a no-good goblin criminal her father was (he left home when Lena was five). Lena tries to pass her strange appendages off as “birth defects” but she’s desperate to know the truth about her father and her own genetics.

On her 18th birthday, Lena’s mother gives her two gifts left by her father – a small inheritance, and a letter. Motivated by her father’s words to her, Lena decides to use the money to travel to Scree, the supposed land of the Peculiars. She takes a train to the town of Knob Knoster, on the border of Scree, where she will need to buy supplies and find someone to guide her through the wilderness. One man who could help her is Tobias Beasley, an inventor and historian.

However, Beasley is rumoured to be an eccentric who might be involved in strange dealings with Peculiars. A young but determined federal marshal named Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on him and report anything incriminating. Lena agrees, and gets a job in Beasley’s library, working alongside Jimson Quigley, a young man she met on the train. It’s a pleasant, fulfilling life, but Lena finds some suspicious things in Beasley’s home, leading her to make decisions that put the people she cares about in danger.

The Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human, morally decrepit freaks. Scree has a dubious reputation as “the place where they send criminals. They say the forests are filled with hideous things”. “No one’s there but misfits, political enemies, and aliens”, Lena is told. It’s no surprise then, that all Peculiars are lumped together with thieves, murderers and anyone considered socially undesirable. The government uses this for political gain. Scree is rich in mineral resources, and by stating that Peculiars are non-human and playing into people’s fears and about them, the government is then able to declare Scree terra nullius – “a ‘land belonging to no one’”. It makes it easy for them to justify their actions there – stealing the land from the indigenous people and exploiting them as slave labour. It’s essentially the story of European colonialism. Scree is a metaphor for Africa or Australia, and the Peculiars represent the indigenous people of those lands.

It’s quite a while before you really see any of this in action though. The majority of the novel is set in Knob Knoster where Lena is trying to prepare for her Scree journey. As a result many reviewers have complained about the slow pace of this book. The blurb gives the impression that this is an action-adventure novel set in Scree, but in fact Lena doesn’t even get there until the last quarter of the novel. You also don’t get to see nearly as many Peculiars as you would expect – their very existence is portrayed as something of a myth for a while, although it’s obvious to the reader that they’re real.

Luckily, this didn’t bother me. I don’t trust blurbs, and in general I’m fine with slow-moving plots. I would have liked the Peculiars to play a larger part, but at least they’re intertwined with the politics and social views of the time. What really, really bothered me though, was Lena. She’s such a weak, thoughtless girl that she essentially spoiled the novel for me.

Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on Mr Beasley for him. In exchange he promises to provide her with a guide to Scree and since he’ll be focusing on Beasley, he’ll take his attention off Lena’s father, Saltre’s other most wanted criminal. Plus, Lena will be helping her country. Lena agrees, although there’s absolutely no good reason for her to do so at this point. She doesn’t need Saltre’s guide if Beasley will help her (which he immediately agrees to do). Saltre didn’t promise to leave her father alone, just that he would ignore him for a bit. It doesn’t even occur to Lena that Saltre could later use her to lead him straight to her father. And since when does Lena care about her country? The government is opposed to Peculiars, and she’s clearly a Peculiar.

It gets worse once she meets Beasley. She’s welcomed into his home, given a tour of his magnificent library, and invited to lunch. Beasley instantly agrees to be her Scree guide, and to help her pay for the expedition he offers her a job in his library and a place to stay in his lovely home. She accepts, and basically begins an ideal life for a young woman in her society. She has a respectable job doing fulfilling work, she has the independence that comes with making your own money, she lives in a beautiful, stately home, all meals are cooked by the housekeeper, and there’s the potential for a bit of romance with her colleague Jimson. On top of that, Beasley has offered to help her achieve her goal of travelling into Scree and finding her father. Beasley has basically given Lena everything she could want at this point. And still the stupid bitch goes running to Saltre with any information she can find to betray Beasley.

Lena actually carries around a notebook and pen just in case she learns something incriminating, and at one point she endures physical pain and great anxiety to go creeping around Beasley’s house in the middle of the night and steal one of his books. Why? Partly because she has a crush on the handsome Saltre, and partly because Lena is easily duped by authority. Saltre is a marshal, and she believes everything he says. The government says Peculiars are bad, therefore they must be bad (even though that implies that Lena is bad too, since she’s obviously Peculiar). If Beasley is breaking the law he must be stopped, even if he is good and the law is designed to exploit people. Lena is such a twit; it takes quite a while for her to think outside the lines.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the reader had more of a chance to empathise with her, if we could see things the way she seems to see them. For example, if it looked like Saltre might actually have feelings for her, or if there was something potentially sinister about Mr Beasley. But no – while she’s blindly making the wrong decisions, it’s crystal clear to the reader what’s really going on. It’s so obvious that Saltre is a villainous government agent manipulating a vulnerable young woman to get what he wants. He’s going to turn on her the moment she ceases to be useful. It’s so obvious that Mr Beasley, on the other hand, is a good, kind man, and Lena is making a colossal mistake by betraying him. I know Lena is naive, but I just couldn’t take her side when people like Jimson and Beasley are so much more likeable.

Jimson is the one who tells Lena that the government is using the Peculiars for political gain. Although he refuses to believe Peculiars exist, you know he’s right about the government. Lena is critical of Jimson for being too rational and scientific, but he usually comes off as a much smarter person in contrast to Lena’s tendency to dismiss evidence in favour of rumour, assumption, and arguments from authority. Jimson and Lena find things that cause them to be suspicious of Beasley, but Jimson takes into account the fact they’ve only ever seen Beasley act with kindness, so he suspends his judgement until they have the whole story and is careful not to do anything rash. Lena on the other hand, runs headlong into doing something rash. This puts everyone in danger, but she has the audacity to criticise Jimson for doing nothing while she took action!

The crap thing is that if it weren’t for Lena being so damn stupid and ungrateful, the story would stand still. It’s her weakness and poor decisions that jumpstart the plot and finally move it out of Knob Knoster and into Scree. It’s a much better book from that point on, but it’s only the last quarter or so. Lena still does some moronic things, but she at least seems to have learned a little from her mistakes and is able to stand up for herself. There’s more danger and adventure in Scree, and of course we learn more about the Peculiars and the government’s operations. Sadly, it’s a case of too little too late. There’s potential for a decent sequel, but The Peculiars is average at best.

Buy a copy of The Peculiars from The Book Depository

Up for Review

I thought I’d try and make a regular Monday feature out of my Up for Review posts. I’m always getting new stuff, and it’s a fun and easy thing to share, so here goes 🙂 I thought I’d start out with Strindberg’s Star, the last of the May publications that I’m planning to review.

 

Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin (Viking Books)
Written by Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin, cross-genre thriller Strindberg’s Star was originally published in 2010 as Strindbergs Stjärn. It’s already become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. It’s been particularly popular in Sweden, Germany and France, and now Viking Books, a division of Penguin USA, is bringing out their edition.

Here’s the marketing copy from NetGalley:

STRINDBERG’S STAR opens on amateur cave diver Erik Hall exploring the deep recesses of a flooded mining shaft near his home in Sweden.  In a cavern seven hundred feet below sea level, he discovers a well-preserved corpse wearing an ancient ankh, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life.  It doesn’t take long for the press to appear on the scene and news of the strange find to spread.

 

When a German expert in religious symbols and Nazi history, Don Titelman, learns of the ankh he seeks out Erik only to find him dead-and immediately becomes the prime suspect in his murder.  Don and his lawyer, Eva Strom, are taken to the German Embassy in Sweden for questioning only to be inexplicably imprisoned in an old wine cellar.  Don and Eva manage to escape, seeking out refuge with Don’s sister, Hex-a mysterious recluse who lives in an abandoned railroad deep underground.  Soon a ruthless secret society is chasing Don and Eva across Europe, in search of the ankh and its secrets…and that’s only the beginning.  Nils Strindberg’s arctic expedition, Norse mythology, ancient mysteries, and horrific Nazi secrets are all woven into this seductive, sophisticated, and thrilling adventure story.  In the hands of expert translator Rachel Willson-Broyles, fans of history, fantasy, crime, suspense, and well-told fiction will all find a new favorite in Wallentin.


Viking Books’s edition of Strindberg’s Star is due 24 May 2012.

Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

Title: Edge of Dark Water
Author:
Joe R. Lansdale
Published:
25 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown
Genre:
 adventure, thriller, drama
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen lives in a small town in the old American South, a place characterised by poverty, racism and domestic abuse. One day she and her friend Terry find the body of another friend – May Lynn Baxter – at the bottom of the Sabine river. She’s clearly been there for a while, weighted down by a Singer sewing machine ties around her ankles.  Sue Ellen’s father and uncle want to push the body back into the water and forget about it, but she and Terry convince them to call the police. When Constable Sy reluctantly drags his bulk over to the scene, he asks why they didn’t just push May Lynn back in. Everyone could just have assumed she’d followed her dream and run away to Hollywood. No one wants to go to the trouble of finding out what happened to her and no one is obliged to bother. She had no family except a drunken father who probably hasn’t even noticed she’s missing.

To honour May Lynn, Terry suggests that he, Sue Ellen and their friend Jinx burn the body and take the ashes to Hollywood. The journey will also give them the chance to escape their miserable home town and the dead-end lives they’re living there. It’s a daunting endeavour and they have almost no money, but then May Lynn’s diary leads them to buried treasure – a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery. With the money and a stolen raft, the trio head down the Sabine river, joined by Sue Ellen’s mother, who’s decided that she no longer wants to spend her days being either beaten by her husband or passed out drunk in bed.

But in making their escape, the three friends have made enemies. Constable Sy and Sue Ellen’s Uncle Gene are after them. May Lynn’s father wants the money and sends a man known as Skunk to track them down. Skunk is the stuff of nightmares, a psychopath who lives alone in the woods and can be hired to hunt people down. He finds pleasure in causing pain and death, and he chops off the hands of his victims to take back to his employers as proof. No one ever gets away from him.

It only took a few pages for me to decide that I liked this book. It’s told with rich Southern wit, bringing a very dark humour to the harsh realities of life in the American South and the dangers of the journey that the main characters embark on. Sue Ellen makes for an excellent narrator who picks up on those little details that make a good story great, like how she takes a thick piece of wood to bed at night, in case her father tries to come into her room, or how the wire around May Lynn’s ankles was tied in a bow. She also has personal qualities that immediately made me like her:

I’d already been doing women’s work for as long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers.

 

I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.

Accompanying Sue Ellen is a strong cast of characters. My favourite is Jinx, a black girl who seems to have been strengthened rather than crushed by the racism of the society she lives in – a particularly ugly prejudice that his novel frequently exposes. Unlike the other characters, Jinx has a relatively happy home life, with a loving, hard-working parents. She’s reluctant to leave them, but knows that if she stays she’s “gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life”. According the Sue Ellen, Jinx has “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”. She’s highly opinionated and never hesitates to share her thoughts, like when she tells a Reverend what bullshit she thinks religion is. Jinx is so sassy that she refuses to hold her tongue even when there’s a gun in her face. Terry, although he’s white, has to deal with prejudice as well, because there’s a rumour that he’s a “sissy” (gay). We also learn a bit about May Lynn, who possessed an angelic sort of beauty, but is by no means glorified just because she’s dead. We learn about her flaws as well, such as how she could be manipulative and self-centred.

I like the antagonists too. They’re all utterly loathsome men who enjoy violence and cruelty, but they’re good characters in that Lansdale really makes you feel the threat that they pose. The most dangerous of course, is Skunk. That man is creepy. The kind of creepy that makes you wonder what that noise upstairs is and double check that the doors are locked. This isn’t what I’d call a horror novel, but Skunk undoubtedly brings that element to it. He’s like a myth – some people don’t believe he exists, while the stories about him have surreal, disturbing details. We don’t actually ‘see’ very much of him, but for most of the journey he exists as a sinister presence, watching, chasing and preparing to attack. When he does attack, the results are always gruesome.

In terms of plot, the journey and the river serve traditional literary purposes as life-changing forces for the main characters. Initially I thought this would be a mystery novel (who killed May Lynn?), but it’s not. It’s more of a dark adventure and character drama with a touch of horror. My only complaints are that there are times when the narrative drags, but mostly I just enjoyed Lansdale’s storytelling. It’s well-written, detailed and has emotionally engaging characters. I’ve heard several times that this is a new direction for Lansdale, who typically writes horror and mystery novels. If he brings this kind of quality and disturbing atmosphere to those genres, I’d very much like to read more of his work.

Buy a copy of Edge of Dark Water at The Book Depository