Titan Books | 2017
Opening Hook: Running through the woods, Jason style.
Main Character: Drinks a shit load of tea.
Plot Twisty-ness: Like a half-assed pretzel.
I’m wavering between 2 and 3 stars for this one because on one hand, it’s not a bad book. The writing is good, the characters don’t suck, the setting is kind of spooky and the crimes were unique, not something I’d ever read about before.
But then on the other hand, if I think about it, this book was super formulaic, there was nothing different about the plotting, the villain’s reveal. And although the crimes were in-depth and thought out with great detail, the ending was also pretty predictable (read: typical.)
Nothing about this book was outside the box, which is disappointing because it had every opportunity to be considering it was working with a partly supernatural storyline.
It came across as if George Mann had read a bunch of mediocre crime fiction and decided those examples are how you plot a mystery, or how a journalist would get wrapped up in the case. I’m not even mad about it because I thought all of that for a long time too, so I get why it happens.
It’s kind of like movies scenes that we’ve seen a hundred times but we know for real that they never happen in real life, yet we rarely question what we’re watching.
Why does the mother keep preparing a glorious breakfast feast for the kids/father/pets, just for them to only take one bite and then run out the door? Or why do so many people dream of being kissed by a beautiful woman only to wake up and realize it’s the dog licking their face. Or someone calls with terrible news and instead of explaining it, they say “turn on the news!” and when they do it just so happens to be at the very beginning of the event so you get all the pertinent details.
There are a million more examples, but has any of that ever happened to you? Ever? If I make a giant breakfast, you’re damn straight every single person knew it was happening in advance and they are going to sit there and fucking eat all of it. If my dog licks my face, I wake up knowing a dog is licking my face. If I want to turn on the news I have to sit around and wait for the story to show up.
For some reason, movies keep using these kinds of trope moments. Recycling them over and over instead of creating a new scene. Why? Because every other movie did it too, so it’s just what you do.
That’s how this book feels to me. The plotting is exactly what any other mid-range crime fiction novel would do. From the journalist, Elspeth, who has way too much access to a serial killer investigation because of barely-there relationship with a childhood friend; to the local professor who just so happens to be a subject matter expert in some really obscure random thing that the police need to know about; to the way the victims are incredibly obvious and convenient for Elspeth to stumble upon.
BUT ON THE OTHER HAND…
This book had a setting that really worked for me. Think The Wicker Man or The VVitch. It’s very “folk-horror” in its presentation – set in bucolic Oxfordshire, in the made-up village of Wilsby-under-Wychwood. It feels cut-off from the outside world – a town of people who only know each other and haven’t ventured far outside its walls. Except, of course, for Elspeth who is returning from London to live with her mum after a bad breakup. Elspeth being this returning “city girl” is played up a little bit in order to give the village that extra feeling of being isolated. I’m a sucker for those creepy village settings, M. Night Shyamalan.
The killer’s motivation was really interesting to me. It was something I’ve never come across before – though I don’t venture into supernatural territory very often in my book choices. In this case, it’s actually what drew me to the book (plus that amazing cover.) The idea of some folktale legend being possibly real, injected magic into the case and made it harder for the police to understand.
This aspect of the book was super thought-out and well detailed. The Carrion King who lives in the Wychwood and has powers of dark magic and must kill to gain his ultimate goals, felt like it was an actual folktale. But it appears to be vaguely lifted from DnD culture and other RPG fantasy games.
BUT ON THE OTHER HAND…
The spooky magic that drew me to the book in the first place, was actually underdeveloped in the grand scheme of things. It exists, and the folklore is there to learn in detail, but actual magic being used and seen and explored was completely underwhelming and left me wanting.
I needed more emotional investment from the characters, especially Elspeth. Will I read her again? Probably, but only to see if Elspeth has any intention of growing as a character. There is very little in the way of emotions in this book, besides the occasional gasp at a dead body. Even when Elspeth recounts her break up, and the reasons she doesn’t want to return to London yet, they told like facts. Her emotional well, and tangible characteristics that made her a distinct person, were shallow, at best.
Because there are very little emotions to be gleaned here, any “thrilling” moments fell flat and I never really picked up on a sense of suspense or urgency during the scenes. The most this book really got out of me were a few moments of giggling at the number of times these people drink tea. I mean, this book could not have been anymore British unless the Queen had a parade during the middle of it.
At one point, a man who was cheating on his wife is questioned about his extracurricular sexual encounter:
“And what did you do after you had sex?”
“I made some tea.”
Everyone drank tea, all the time, at every chance they could find. There was so much tea!
While the tea-theme was hilarious, it wasn’t meant to be, so like I said, I’m torn by my rating.
This story had the potential to be creepy and eerie, to blow the reader’s mind and create a badass female lead investigating magical things that the police don’t believe. I mean, really, it could have been a hell of a ride.
But overall, it was so underplayed at every abandoned opportunity. It was a basic bitch of a novel. To the casual mystery reader, I can see this one being a good choice. To the genre-lover, it’s going to be a ho-hum experience. And to the supernatural readers, it’s definitely going to disappoint.
I’m splitting it down the middle at 3-stars. It’s just the most okay-est.
After losing her job and her partner in one fell swoop, journalist Elspeth Reeves is back in her mother’s house in the sleepy village of Wilsby-under-Wychwood, wondering where it all went wrong.
Then a body is found in the neighbouring Wychwoods: a woman ritually slaughtered, with cryptic symbols scattered around her corpse.
Elspeth recognizes these from a local myth of the Carrion King, a Saxon magician who once held a malevolent court deep in the forest. As more murders follow, Elspeth joins her childhood friend DS Peter Shaw to investigate, and the two discover sinister village secrets harking back decades.