Back in early July, I was lucky enough to receive an e-mail from Atria Publishing, asking me to pick two books for review. One was The Map of the Sky, the other, a debut novel by poet Douglas Nichols, Something Red. A week ago, I received a nice hardback of Something Red. Thank you Atria.
I picked Something Red because of its description:
They are creatures of blood and dream.” During the thirteenth century, in the northwest of England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable middle-aged Irishwoman and her little troupe are trying to drive their three wagons across the Pennines before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her powerful and enigmatic lover Jack, her fey granddaughter Nemain, and the young apprentice Hob soon find that something terrible prowls the woods through which they must make their way. As they travel from refuge to refuge, it becomes apparent that the evil must be faced, and it is then that Hob learns how much more there is to his adopted family than he had ever imagined.
I could not resist such a write up, a scary story set during the Middle Ages! The back cover reviews call this a suspenseful coming of age fantasy, a pulse pounding page-turner and a book that will leave you reading late into the night. I could not wait to jump into this, so even though school had started, I eager sat down, fully expecting a very scary fantasy.
This is no horror book; no rather it is an adult fairytale. I say adult because there are mentions of sex. Sex between two middle agers. Sex that lasts for hours (see, I told you it was a fairytale).
As much as I enjoyed the book, and admire Mr. Nichols’ writing style, there are a lot of things that leave me on the fence. Long time readers of mine know I can be picky, so maybe it’s just me. Yet I feel I need to address what I did not like. A fair review has to include criticism, right?
The plot setting: We learn that Molly and her granddaughter Nemain are Irish exiles. We never learn why nor do we learn where they are going. We just know they are traveling with Jack, Molly’s lover, across the Mountains in North West England. At one of their stops they agree to take Hob, the orphan teen that had been living with an older priest. We learn why Molly agreed to take Hob, but not until the end of the book, it would have been nice to get bits and pieces of his story throughout the novel.
Tone: the pace is not fast; in fact nothing really happens until chapter 5. You have to read half way through the book before you get to any action.
Theme: Lack of clarity. A terrible snowstorm is the backdrop, and Douglas uses it to help cloud Molly’s view of what is really going on and who it is she should be afraid of. The whiteout is external as well as internal. The problem with this theme is that at times we the readers are just as “lost” as Molly is. Because we do not really know who she is, we are not sure what’s ahead or what to expect. We know the conflict is with a shape shifter or werewolf, but because we do not really know the main characters we cannot even trust them. This does add some suspense to the story, but by the time we get to the action or heart of the book, we have figured it all out. I never like spoilers so I will not address this, but I will say those who love fairytales and know the lore of several countries will figure out who it is that is stalking our travelers.
If you don’t know much about the Middle Ages, you may have problems with some terms. One reviewer complained that many of the terms were unexplained. I can sympathize. Even though I am a Medieval scholar, some of the terms went right over my head. Douglas writes in such detail that at times the story gets bogged down. When he gets into the story it flows. His gift for words show best when he gets lost in the story. If he “fixes” anything, I hope he tells his next story more, and describes the setting less.
Despite all of this, the story works because Douglas knows he is telling us a fairytale. He never waivers in his theme, and as modern fairytales go, this is one of the best. You can almost picture the characters in Snow White living close by. If you are looking for stylish writing and wonder if grownups can still enjoy fairytales, I suggest you pick this up, just be prepared to have unanswered questions.