The books reviewed by allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore this week share strongly imagined worlds.
Demon’s Grip by Tahlia Newland (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
The third novel in the Diamond Peak series by Tahlia Newland is a somewhat different book to its two predecessors. Perhaps that is not surprising, for over the course of a series of books, the pacing will vary, and the narrative will bend and flex as it moves towards its concluding volumes. Unlike other serial novels, like the Harry Potter books, Ariel is on a long linear journey, and so the books will vary on that journey.
Following the dramatic action with which the second volume Stalking Shadows ended, this novel begins in a more thoughtful and reflective fashion, and in some respects the title is a metaphor for the book as a whole. The book has fewer of the action sequences and battle scenes that characterised the earlier books, and though we now see more of the Diamond’s Peak world through different character points of view, Ariel herself is confined to two locations for much of the novel. While her mother is in the grip of Emot, Ariel herself is in the grip of her complicated feelings for Nick, and the battles she faces are against her internal ‘enemy’ – the literal and terrifying consequences of being unable to understand and manage those feelings.
That, in particular, makes this book more thoughtful in tone. The spiritual themes of this world come much more to the fore, and Ariel’s dialogues with Walnut explore that in some detail. The book is also somewhat claustrophobic in feel at times, as Ariel struggles with what she feels and the impact of it on her journey. And here is the challenge of rating this book: in terms of the series as a whole, it is an essential stage in Ariel’s journey, for the enemy she must conquer is within, and it is a timely sequel to the second volume. But as a novel in itself, this reviewer finds it less readable than its predecessors, due to its slower pacing, the long segments of dialogue, and the dominance of Ariel and Nick’s relationship in the story. Nonetheless, the end of this novel opens up some interesting possibilities for Ariel’s future on Diamond Peak, and readers will want to know what happens in the final instalment of her journey.
Beyond the Cascade by A.H. Jessup (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
Many of us can identify with the sense of having lost our purpose in life, of the encroaching of an ever-more demanding world, of the exhausting cycle of work-life-work. Many of us may also have experienced the debilitating symptoms of depression, the gathering grey-black that will not relent no matter what the distraction. Suzannah Grant, a brilliant New York academic specialising in linguistics, is struggling with a darkness that she cannot overcome. We first meet her through the eyes of her old and closest friend Christian, who is poring over the remains of her life – a few letters, some incidental personal possessions. Some mysterious event has befallen Suzannah and Christian cannot quite believe she is dead.
And then we flash back and meet Suzannah, and join her journey to the distant heartland of southern Africa, to a land, people, culture and language only once before charted by a Victorian explorer – a language which hints at the mysterious Experience Cascade. Driven on by her desire to find refuge from herself and her ever darkening existence, Suzannah submerges herself in first research and then the journey to follow in the explorer’s footsteps, abandoning little by little everything familiar in pursuit of the truth. What is the Cascade? And what can be learned about it?
What Suzannah discovers is that there is a difference between learning about the Cascade and learning from it. And it is this truth she seeks which makes the novel so interesting. Jessup has not only imagined a world for us of enormous credibility – a ‘lost’ tribe of people within a world that has been Google-mapped out of obscurity – but one which has a very strong spiritual vision. Carefully translating the language of the lost culture for her, Suzannah’s local guide Muhaybee alludes to our psychological frailties as individuals, mapping them as hills, rivers and the landscape through which they journey together, as Suzannah faces increasing physical, emotional and psychological challenges. Jessup shows us how those frailties have weakened our spirituality – regardless of our faith or religion – and how much is lost to them.
This is a very long novel, and in conventional narrative terms it does not really adopt a page-turning pace until about half way through. The multiple points of view and voices – Suzannah and Christian in third and first person, letters, journals and so on – help somewhat to keep the first part moving, but the authenticity of the detail of Suzannah’s expertise in linguistics, and to a lesser extent Christian’s professional knowledge of AI, are – in this reviewer’s opinion – at times completely overwhelming of the storyline and slow the pace too much. The writing is elegant, evocative and strongly visual, but because we spend so much time inside Suzannah’s head, at times again the long descriptive tracts can slow the pace.
Nonetheless, this is an inspiring, thought-provoking journey of a novel, and worth the investment of time and consideration by any reader interested in spiritual themes.
Brimstone by Alan Skinner (Amazon UK and Amazon US)
This is a wonderfully well-imagined novel with terrific, strong characters and a well thought out story. Jenny Swift is plucked from her woodland home aged fifteen by Richard Antrobus, the master alchemist of small city-state Vale, who has chosen her for her extraordinary healing abilities to become his apprentice. She is immediately plunged into a world of danger and intrigue when Antrobus is attacked on their way to Vale, and the first few days of Jenny’s apprenticeship become a race to find out more about her master, about the city she has moved to, and about the sciences of alchemy which seem to attract such danger.
The novel is pitched at a young adult audience, and certainly the occasional brutalities of a quasi-mediaeval style society might mildly alarm a much younger child, though Skinner has dealt with the hardships of his plot twists very carefully so as not to linger unnecessarily on the deaths that do take place. Nonetheless, there is a lovely child-like quality to this book at times, in Jenny’s journey of discovery of herself, of alchemy, and of the city that contrasts so starkly with the peaceful woodlands of her sheltered childhood. Jenny draws all sorts of attention herself, for she is one female apprentice among boys, and her mother’s exotic heritage means she looks unusual too. She has a typical teenager’s anxieties about her looks, but she is also a great role model for following your talents and doing what you’re good at, regardless of what others might think. We see Jenny make a friend in the marvellously flirtatious Emily Trickett, and her courage to help others engages both her friends in the novel and the reader.
This is a really well-written novel, a delightful read, and the next stories from Jenny’s apprenticeship will be well worth the wait.
If you’ve enjoyed Evie’s reviews, why not take a look at her magical realist novels: Equilibrium, Rising Up and The Salt Factory.