Apr 19, 2010: This is a complex tale but it holds together as if by magic. The story hook is set early:
As a child, Elizabeth had delighted in learning the history of the area; bloody battles involving Danes, Vikings and Celts, and legends full of sorcery and mythological creatures. Her mood darkened when she remembered other less documented invaders. Not all struggles that had taken place here had or would appear in the history books.
Ah! Splendid, a behind-the-scenes history, the story you didn’t hear. I trust I am not issuing a spoiler when I say the art of the hearthside ghost story is here transformed into richly detailed contemporary fantasy—on a part time basis. For the scene shifts continually from the recent to the more distant past, and back again. Fortunately the episodes are dated at the top so you can easily tell recent events from those that happened a long while before.
I was expecting to become confused by the timeline shifting back and forth. But the technique suits the story and I kept the time shifts straight without any trouble. In some authors’ hands this technique of mixing timelines simply does not work. In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, for example, it is an annoyance—too clever by half. Here it works better because the links between now and then are thematic more than plot related and the jumps most often serve to establish the characters.
The characters are vividly drawn and the author has a very good ear for diction and dialect. The story line seems to me a bit vague in places, a series of episodes that are, some of them, related to the others rather indirectly. I’ve just begun reading the second volume, but so far it shows signs of tighter plotting. Volume 1 is constructed like a TV series: The core characters come back but the challenges they face may be new this week. Volume 2 seems, so far, more novelistic in its structure.
Both volumes succeed at supplying what fantasy readers most want, another world they can spend time in as a kind of vacation or escape from the everyday. The story world is consistent and requires minimal suspension of disbelief, once you get past the premise of ghosts among us. It is not like the stories Tolkein quipped about, the kind that call for disbelief to be not suspended but hanged, drawn and quartered. Not at all. This story world is a mix of the contemporary and familiar with supernatural aspects that are also familiar to a degree. Ghosts are part of the West’s cultural background and finding restless spirits still inhabit 21st century England is somehow much more plausible than I would have thought.
The everyday and the otherworldly are blended skillfully into one another without the jolting feeling one sometimes finds in contemporary fantasy—the disconnect that comes when authors shift too abruptly from mundane to weird. I recommend this tale to all who like the thought of a touch of the supernatural in back of the everyday world.