Horror, Contemporary Fantasy
The Secrets of Life and Death
Series: Jackdaw Hammond
I featured this title in our October Releases list. It had the dubious honor of going up against a number of very good books that month, including Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things. Upon reading this title and comparing my view of the book versus what I’ve seen on Goodreads, I also think it’s something of a misunderstood book. This isn’t really fantasy: it’s horror, and deserves to be read as such. But when you do, it’s a great read.
In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive.... In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her… As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.
When I picked up my library copy of The Secrets of Life and Death, the librarians in cataloguing had done me a huge favor: they stuck a HOR call ‘number’ on it indicating that this book was shelved in the horror section of the library. I took this as a cue to take off my fantasy reading cap and put on my dusty and somewhat ill-used horror reading cap. That brain shift saved this book from being an ‘eh’ story to something I would solidly recommend to the right reader. Now, you might say that it shouldn’t matter what frame of mind I’m in when I read a tale, a story is a story. However, these two genres set out to do very different things. Ultimately, horror is out to make you uncomfortable, disturbed, and/or fearful. In short, it should horrify you. If it doesn’t, then it’s likely being shelved in the wrong area. Fantasy tends to be more of a feel-good genre (unless your Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, et al, but they are exceptions to the general rule). Even for an author like Anne Bishop, there’s underlying good underneath all the blood soaked murder, and the good guys win. If you pick The Secrets of Life and Death up expecting a feel-good contemporary fantasy, or even urban fantasy, you will be disappointed. For those looking for something a bit more grotesque, a lot more morally grey, and not filled with inane tropes, then here is a book for you.
Now, I will admit that there are some problems with this book. Alexander is a fairly new author (while she does have another book out, it’s a memoir, so I should perhaps have classified this book as a debut back in October). There are some patches where characterization could have been done differently or more effectively, and where setting could have been fleshed out more. While Alexander does have good prose, it’s not outstanding. These are little things that, should she gain more experience (and I hope she will), will likely be polished away. She also chose to tackle Elisabeth Bathory, one of the most famous serial killers in history. I mean, she died in 1614 and is still chopping the charts as one of the most crazy bitches ever to become a serial killer. Bathory is a huge figure to tackle, and I admit that Alexander’s use of her put me on the fence about this book initially. The good news is that Bathory is rarely around much in and of herself. Kelley’s part of the story is about how Bathory becomes the undead, while Jackdaw’s is ultimately about what happens to Bathory after she and Kelley part ways. As Edward Kelley is a much more obscure historical figure (and, well... colorful... in his own right), this saves the book from feeling tired and rehashed. (For the historically minded, I will say that Alexander has kept her timeline well within the realm of believability and more importantly, plausibility, even if I wished she had challenged herself to bringing more historical details into play.)
On the off chance of giving away too much of the book, I will say one more thing: for those looking for a story where the good guy doesn’t necessarily win, or doesn’t win by staying a good guy, this will be a fun read for you. In the end of the book, there really isn’t a single uncompromised character left. Everyone’s made sacrifices and done questionable things, things that will haunt them and change them from the person they were at the start of the book. There’s no clean slate for anyone, and perhaps that’s as it should be for more of our ‘heroes.’
For those looking for something outside of the normal genre fare that we feature here, or for those who enjoy titles like The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston, the Secrets of Life and Death warrants a place on your to-read list.