Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Hawley Book of the Dead

The Hawley Book of the Dead The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It isn’t easy to write the Gothic in an American context. We don’t generally have a deep enough history – or a deep enough appreciation of the history we do have – to weave that haunted feeling throughout a substantial story.

My favorite part about this book is that it succeeds in doing just that. It does evoke a sense of history as deep and troubled. Whether it’s the opening scenes in a Las Vegas theater where Houdini and scores of forgotten magicians worked their art or later in the emptied New England small town of our protagonist’s ancestors, you get the sense that people have lived in the spaces that Szarlan explores.

As a consequence, much of what we learn about the deep magic of the world comes to us haphazardly. I imagine that this would be distasteful to Orson Scott Card and other proponents of a well-ordered “world-building” philosophy in fantasy writing. This book seems haphazard, introducing key points later than you’d expect and reconfiguring its back story as it goes. There does seem to be a sloppiness to it all, but I can generally forgive it for the consistent way it evokes its intriguing gothic tone.

I’m a little less forgiving of some of the ways it walls off Revelation’s emotional world. She is understandably devastated by the death of her husband (not a spoiler since it comes in the first sentence) but then she’ll go long chapters without seeming to think of him. Or, to take a [SPOILER ALERT] later example, she acquires a sword that clearly has magical implications, and then she just forgets about it until she has a convenient need for it.

So, this one could have used some tightening up in its plot and in the consistency of its characters. For its capacity to get across a distinctly American type of hauntedness, though, it’s a real and pleasurable success. I’ve been on a roll with un- or semi-satisfying books, and this one brought back some of the magic I’d been missing out of reading.

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