J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: Something Red.

So, over the weekend I finished reading another novel. The book? Something Red, by Douglas Nicolas.

 

I came across this book while wandering through Barnes and Noble. The beautiful cover to it caught my eye, so I picked it up and checked to see what it was about. What I saw was this:

The Logline:

During the thirteenth century in northwest England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable yet charming Irish healer, Molly, and the troupe she leads are driving their three wagons, hoping to cross the Pennine Mountains before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her lover Jack, granddaughter Nemain, and young apprentice Hob become aware that they are being stalked by something terrible. The refuge they seek in a monastery, then an inn, and finally a Norman castle proves to be an illusion. As danger continues to rise, it becomes clear that the creature must be faced and defeated—or else they will all surely die. It is then that Hob discovers how much more there is to his adopted family than he had realized.

An intoxicating blend of fantasy and mythology, Something Red presents an enchanting world full of mysterious and fascinating characters— shapeshifters, sorceresses, warrior monks, and knights—where no one is safe from the terrible being that lurks in the darkness. In this extraordinary, fantastical world, nothing is as it seems, and the journey for survival is as magical as it is perilous.

This premise sounded really cool, even though I’d never heard of the author before. So on a whim, I picked it up and gave it a try. I seem to do this a lot. I’m an idiot savant reader when it comes to picking books, I swear. I go in with no research or knowledge, yet I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors doing this same method*. So I’ll keep at it!

*I discovered Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora with this method. That alone makes it worth it, even if I never pick up another good book just by randomly grabbing off the shelf again.

But anyway. How good was it? Read on.

 

What I liked:

– The characters. The plot in this book is honestly more of an afterthought, so it’s the characters that must carry the novel and make it work. As the logline tells you, the settings are nothing particularly out of the ordinary. But with the four main characters, you get some really cool unconventional archetypes.

  • Molly, the wise older woman with an air of mystery about her. Some know her as a healer, others as an exiled Irish queen. Others still call her a witch, for all the feats she is capable of that others can’t even come close to understanding. She’s like the Yoda of this book… always has an answer for everything, but not without her own petty flaws. I really liked her, and the author added the right amounts of exposition and mystery to her. Honestly, I’d read a book about just her, if it came out. You want to read about a really strong female character? Read this book. She is one.
  • Jack Brown, a war veteran from the Crusades. He doesn’t say much, but his actions do the talking. He’s a gentle soul, but inhumanly strong. He also has a soft spot for the main POV character, always teaching him and protecting him. Jack is pretty much the silent badass trope, but it’s subverted by how he only acts like one when necessary. Most writers make their badasses be badass all the time. He was refreshing in that way.
  • Nemain, Molly’s granddaughter. For much of the book she seems to be your ordinary run of the mill teenage girl, teasing the main pov character when he eyes other girls, and flirting with him from time to time. But then you randomly run into scenes where Molly asks her for her opinion on serious matters, and she almost feels like an adult character in how she displays wisdom, with no small amount of skills similar to her grandmother.
  • Hob, the main pov. He’s a thirteen year old boy, apprenticed to Molly. In many ways, this is his story. Sometimes you find yourself wishing what the other characters thought, but then you realize…. when you’ve got a story like this, sometimes the most ordinary character is the best one to take the ride with. And this is no different.

If these characters weren’t interesting, the book would be boring. Period. Thankfully, they are really well done, and you feel like a fifth member of their troupe a few pages in.

– The lyricism. This is weird for me to say, because honestly, typically I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like reading giant bricks of text that do nothing but paint a picture. But this book does it so well, I have little choice but to list it as a strength. The author is a poet (this is his first book, apparently), and he uses that experience to great effect in this book. There’s so many times in this book where another author would zoom in, and let the characters describe everything and do the exposition themselves.

But instead, it’s almost like he zoom outs, and describes everything like a painting you see on the wall. Whether it’s a group of men placing bets on a feat of strength to pass the time on a lazy winter night in an inn, to our main four characters simply wandering down an isolated mountain trail where it feels like anything could jump out at them, the author paints it in a subtle and creeping way. You know almost from the first chapter that there’s something dangerous out in the wild around them, and the wording plays on this magnificently.

– The plot. I know, I just mentioned a few paragraphs ago that the plot is mostly an afterthought. The reason for that is simple. While there is a complex medieval horror story at work here, the real core of the novel is a coming of age story for Hob. We follow him, and see what he sees. We feel what he feels, and go through puberty (in some cases, quite literally. He even has a wet dream at one point!) with him as the novel progresses.

When the actual horror plot point meets its climax and is resolved, the story keeps going for a few more chapters. You’d think “Oh no, this book doesn’t know when to quit”. But in reality, these are among the most satisfying chapters in the book. Why is that? Because we get to see the characters do their last bit of growing, and see where their journey ends…. with just the right touch of mystery, of course.

Something Red; you come for the medieval horror story, you stay for the character growth.

– Despite that, the climax of this book is top notch, with the right degree of tension and danger for what the jacket promised. It’s among the best I’ve ever read for that.

– This book also ties in the title with a phrase used in the book. I am an absolute sucker for that, and it was beautifully done in this book. I was totally satisfied after reading it.

 

What I didn’t like:

– If you’re a fan of dialogue, and you absolutely need it to enjoy what you read, this book is not for you. As I mentioned earlier, this book is very strategic in where it uses dialogue. There are many parts where the author is content to just sit back and let Hob tell you what everyone else is doing, without telling you exactly what they’re saying. It makes some of the other characters harder to really identify and get to know better. But on the bright side, it does make you that much closer to Hob himself. Which was the point, I think.

That being said, I’m a dialogue fiend and I still enjoyed it. So I think it’s still worth a try.

– The actual plot in this book is among the slowest I have ever read in a book. It’s plodding and deliberate as an ox hauling a wagon down a trail. You will in fact read  almost two hundred pages of medieval travelling life before really reaching a point where the threat really makes itself known. I found myself questioning if there was a point to any of it, about halfway through. But on the bright side? There definitely is a point. Stick with it.

 

In case I wasn’t obvious enough in my writing about it, I really loved this novel. It was the literary surprise of the year for me so far. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed, but it definitely did. If you’re looking for a good historical fiction, with some horror and fantasy sprinkled in, with some random YA elements thrown in, you really can’t afford to miss out on this book.

I give this book *****. I’d explain what that means, but you aren’t stupid.

Definitely adding this guy to my list of authors not to miss. In the words of Molly herself, Away on!

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2013 by in Book recommendations, Books, Literacy and tagged , , , , .
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