I'm on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I've ever...moreI'm on Air France, destined for Los Angeles. Fleeing Aziz, my husband of twenty years, the man I married when I was fifteen. The only lover I've ever known. He believes that I will return to him. I will not. Why? Because I can't resist his drunken eyes, velvet words, and persuasive hands that know where to press softly and where to stroke hard, where to linger and where to slither away, where to cup and hold and warm.
And I won't return because I can't free myself from Parvaneh. [pp.1-2]
So begins Soraya's story, in 1999, as she leaves Iran for America. Her husband, Aziz, believes she's been invited by the magazine she freelances for to start a new photographic project in the States; he believes it's only temporary. Soraya - a wealthy Jewish Iranian, blond, green-eyed and nearly six feet tall - has other plans. She has no intention of returning to Iran, to Aziz, to her marriage. Instead she buys a lavish mansion in Bel Air with a wild, huge garden in the back that she sees great potential for; an impressive library full of books on plants and insects (the owner is an amateur lepidopterist); and an unusual interior courtyard housing an atrium within which is a very rare plant indeed: Amorphophallus titanum. The Corpse Flower. A giant plant that blooms once every fifteen years, and produces a rank stench of rotting meat when it does. It is also, as Soraya knows, highly toxic.
There in the seclusion of her new home, with two Iranian immigrants to cook, clean and drive her around, Soraya's plan for revenge takes shape. Her deep love for her husband has become an obsession, and having witnessed him making love to her best friend, Parvaneh - a name that means "butterfly" - she can think only of revenge, and punishment. She becomes freshly obsessed with the butterflies she attracts to her new garden, and in getting the Corpse Flower to bloom. The only thing left to do is lure her friend to America.
But Soraya is blinded by her own self-centeredness as much as her obsession and jealousy, and the secrets that will emerge have the power to undo her utterly.
Mossanen's newest novel is a story of one woman's slide into obsession, delusion and mental illness. Even before she catches her husband and her best friend in bed - something they have no idea she witnessed - the signs of instability are there. Soraya is one of those people who are always on the edge. She doesn't do things by half-measures. She's prone to extremes. Throughout twenty years of happy marriage to Aziz, and numerous trips to specialist fertility doctors across the world, she never reveals to Aziz that she is in fact taking birth control pills. All so that she doesn't have to share Aziz with another - with a baby he would dote on. (She also doesn't seem to be the motherly type.)
Soraya isn't a particularly likeable character, nor one we are meant to like. Unlikeable - and by extension, untrustworthy - characters are often the most captivating, fascinating, and charismatic; at least to read about. Characters who aren't just good but more complex are ultimately more satisfying, and their stories become stories about the complexities and contradictions of human nature, the human condition - something we are quietly obsessed about.
In contrast, Soraya threatens to completely alienate the reader. Mossanen just manages to hold us by carefully revealing scenes from her past that expand and explain her character. The danger is having Soraya slip into a caricature of herself, become ridiculous in her obsession and murder-revenge plot. The truth is, I'm not entirely convinced that didn't happen, regardless. I didn't like Soraya - not in the sense of, I wouldn't want to have a cup of tea with her (which I certainly wouldn't want to do), but in the sense of: I struggled to sympathise, empathise or stay patient with her. She was like an overgrown child, used to having her way, spoiled and an attention seeker who never learnt to share (by which I'm not excusing Aziz's infidelity; I don't mean "to share" in that way!).
The flashbacks and memories reveal much about Soraya's deeply flawed character, but certainly don't excuse her. What's interesting is the ambiguity this story provoked in me. Did I want her plan to succeed? Did I want her to have a happy ending? Did she deserve it? Is she a real victim, or just a spoiled rich woman who doesn't know how to cope when something doesn't go her way?
The sad fact is, I felt betrayed by Soraya - betrayed as a woman. This feeling rose up in me without any conscious effort and it took me a while to realise what it was. I had trouble respecting Soraya, because of her upbringing, because of her arrogance, because of her insufferable self-aggrandisement, and because her thoughts, feelings, actions and decisions were the kind that supported a patriarchal society. This reveals just as much about my own upbringing and place in the world as it does Soraya's.
Soraya still vividly remembers life in Tehran, pre-Islamic Revolution. The fall of the Shah, in 1979, changed everything in Iran. Women were no longer allowed to go outside without a male family member, or without being fully covered. "Morality police" peered in through people's windows or accosted them on the street, checking on behaviour and appearance. Among the elite, many fled, their homes and wealth parcelled off to the people. Some, like Soraya's father, stayed - mostly so that others wouldn't get their hands on his house and money. The Jews, a wealthy enclave, became ever more alienated from the rest of society. But even before the revolution, this was a deeply patriarchal society, among the Jews just as much as the Iranians.
It is inherent in Soraya's attitude towards men, her sense of herself as a kind of sexual predator who uses her looks to lure men (all part of her revenge; it was satisfying how it didn't affect Aziz at all - he knew her too well to fall for appearances). And it is inherent in her reaction to the Mullah on the plane: an Islamic priest, wearing expensive shoes and perfume under his robe, who she tries to discomfit by revealing her legs and brushing her arm against. When he follows through by offering to make her his wife for a night - a legal practice enabling muslim men to sleep around without committing adultery (very handy) - she's barely put off. She notes the hypocrisy but it doesn't faze her. This even though she seems angered (or has inherited her grandmother's anger) that the widows of Iranian soldiers receive no support and so must turn to prostitution to provide for their families, for which they are persecuted and even arrested.
It is always interesting, enlightening and enjoyable to read stories about other places, people and cultures, and the clash of cultures evident in Scent of Butterflies is handled well. But I did struggle with Soraya. There just wasn't much of a positive nature to balance her flaws, and flaws she had many. Her obsession was strong and believable, but failed to really capture my interest. There wasn't a lot of depth to the character, or the story. And I'm still not sure how I feel about the very ending, on a personal level; however, it did suit.
Overall, I am full of ambiguity about this novel, which isn't a bad thing. It never hurts to have a book make you uncomfortable, or displeased: a character like Soraya really draws your attention to your own, personal code of ethics, morality and expectations of yourself and others, as well as life and society in general. Because of that, that parallel of story-and-exposé, it was quite a successful book, and it also succeeded in bringing to life a side of Iranian society I hadn't known much about. But as a character portrait taken on its own merit, I'm not so sure. Like I said, this book left me full of ambiguity and even now, a couple of weeks after reading it, my thoughts are unresolved.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped, partly because I was hoping it was more along the lines of speculative fiction (it certainly hinted at it!)...moreI didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped, partly because I was hoping it was more along the lines of speculative fiction (it certainly hinted at it!) and partly because I was reading a galley on my Kindle, and I struggle to interact with stories electronically. The other reason would be that I simply wasn't all that interested in the characters. Deenie is perhaps the central character, but her father, Tom - a teacher at her school - also gets his point-of-view chapters. His side story is his status as bachelor and a vague flirtation with the French teacher. Her older brother, Eli, gets some air time too. No one character was particularly well developed, and the shift between such different characters gave it a choppy, uneven feel.
The plot itself started strongly, and built great atmosphere, but fizzled all too soon. It became fairly predictable, or rather, the build-up at the start created high expectations that didn't hold. That said, I could have had a very different reading experience had I read this as an actual print book. The other issue is that, as a story about young adolescent girls and their complicated psychological make-up, I felt I'd read better, more thought-provoking stories. The Fever didn't add anything or teach me anything new. Overall, simply disappointing.
Read in February 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows....more**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie's favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.
Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She's a fully cognisant zombie - or "hungry", as they're called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect - and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she's brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she's able to control her hunger.
While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it's been since the Breakdown - there are men on Parks' team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.
When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.
The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called "Iphigenia in Aulis" which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it - you can really see it as a film). MR Carey - who usually writes as Mike Carey - writes for DC and Marvel (he's the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he's good at, and in his new novel those strengths - of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes - really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn't add anything to the narrative, but it wasn't too distracting.
On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and - especially in the first part - that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro's creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief - their need to believe - that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn't do what they do to them - not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.
I've said before that I'm not a fan of zombie stories; I've read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can't win against zombies. If you survive, it's only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn't your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we're willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.
We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her - things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she's also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn't hard to see where the genius of Carey's creation lies: I can't think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don't think we could bare to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that's just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin's The Passage (I've read that Carey hadn't read Cronin's books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.
The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn't a very long time, but it's long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they're still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There's a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she's become the Mad Scientist character.
So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They're trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are ... well, they're a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They're the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.
But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who'd obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.
Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn't keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let's take a good long look at him/her/it.
And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they're running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What's the deal? [pp.70-71]
Visually, it's very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It's not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries' (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans - and only humans - have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they've got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It's just something that bugs me while I'm reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.
I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful.(less)
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(less)
Elspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is...moreElspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is Jorah, her native American husband, and their children: Mary, Amos, Jesse, Caleb, Emma. Home is a small farm in the middle of nowhere, secluded, isolated, handmade. A small wooden house and two barns for the animals. The children all schooled at home, taught Bible stories by Jorah, but largely ignorant of the real world.
Winter, New York State, 1897. Elspeth returns with gifts for the children, but finds instead carnage. Her children dead, shot. Jorah, killed in their bed. The place cold, frozen over, the barn door blocked by drifts of snow. Only Caleb's body she can't find, but then the boy always slept in the hayloft in the barn. When Elspeth, too, is shot, she doesn't have time to think that the killers have returned before she sinks into unconsciousness, and she doesn't see that it is Caleb, hiding in the pantry with his shotgun, who shot her, thinking that the killers had returned.
Caleb, twelve years old, saw the three men with their red scarves. He spent days alongside his dead brothers and sisters, traumatised and terrified. Now his mother is peppered with shot and he does what he can to help her. When she's recovered enough to move, the two set out on a journey over the harsh winter landscape to the town of Watersbridge to find the three men and exact revenge.
The town is an equally harsh place, where Caleb is suddenly thrust into an adult world of violence and depravity, and Elspeth must face up to her failings as a mother - and her sins as a midwife. Now is the time to decide who they each are, boy and mother, who they are loyal to, and whether they can forgive - and earn forgiveness.
I came very close to loving this book. There were a few times when I did love it, but then the feeling slipped away from me and I was left enjoying it a great deal, but not quite in love. For a debut novel, it's a fine achievement, bold and strong and brave, and also subtle and humane. I wasn't quite enamoured of the prose, which often felt like a hand pressed against my chest, exerting slight pressure to make me keep my distance. As much as I wanted to really connect with the characters and immerse myself in their story, that invisible pressure ensured an element of detachment that I didn't want.
Granted, the sensation did fit in very nicely with the story, the tone and the atmosphere. This is a cold story. Look at the cover; now feel that in your bones. Scott does an excellent job of capturing that winter chill, the ice and snow and freezing winds, and lets it permeate the characters, their emotions, their decisions. This is not a story that could have taken place in warmer, sunnier months. (Or rather, it would have been a completely different, less captivating story.) Winter itself becomes a third wheel to Elspeth and Caleb's journey, a constant presence - and a constant threat.
The dangers that the weather pose, that unpredictable natural element, compounds the dangers in Watersbridge. Elspeth, disguised as a man, gets a job on the river, cutting and hauling large blocks of ice which are then stacked in a tower in the icehouse. It's a very dangerous job, as she witnesses. Caleb finds himself at the disreputable Elm Inn, a brothel, bar and gaming hell, and ends up with a job sweeping the floors and washing sheets - expecting at any moment for the three killers to walk in, as it's their kind of place. Whenever a fight breaks out and there are gunshots, or Ethan the doorman forcibly ejects a man from a woman's room, they use the phrase, "Better get the doctor." Code for: dump the body in the snow outside, it'll be taken care of.
The Elm Inn is run by London White, a fastidious man who relates to young Caleb how he took what he wanted through murder and theft. A dangerous, possessive man who'd like to raise Caleb in his world. But it is at the Elm Inn that Caleb encounters Martin Shane, who seems shocked to see Caleb - as if he knows him, or recognises him.
It is clear from early on that there is something odd about Elspeth's children. Something that doesn't add up. Elspeth herself isn't the motherly figure you expect her to be when you start reading. She's only maternal up to a point, as if her motherly instincts have a use-by date. There's little depth of connection between her and Caleb, and neither of them is at all sure that the other won't just leave them. As much as this story is a coming-of-age story for Caleb, it's even more of one for Elspeth.
Thematically, and regardless of the weather or location, this is a "Wild West" story. A classic Western, in the American sense. Murder, revenge, a lawless town run by a few powerful men, brawls and violence and homophobia abound. Just remove the typical dry desert-like setting, and replace it with an equally cruel, ice-cold one. The ending fits in nicely with this, and overall it's a delight - a fascinating delight - to read a Western so perfectly removed from it's namesake, the American West, and instead woven so neatly into the wild, cold winter of the north-east. It makes it less your typical "historical fiction" novel and more of a wild-card. It doesn't follow the usual historical fiction trajectory: it's all Western. This sense seeps into you fairly quickly, and really adds to the tension of reading about a vulnerable woman and a small boy on such a perilous mission in this harsh man's world.
Like I said, there was much to love here. As harsh and uncompromising as the landscape, yet like the land, there are slim veins of more positive elements visible: love, forgiveness, family, the bond between mother and child, redemption, hope. The Western tropes and the winter cold add to the disconnect from the main characters - I couldn't always understand Elspeth or her motivations, because you never get a chance to - but as a whole, the story is rather brilliant.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)