Last month’s discussion was another good one. Whether you enjoyed the book or not, everyone at least found something good to say about what they did like or what worked well for them. I hope for more of the same for April’s selection.
Cherie Priest has quickly developed into one of those authors I eagerly look forward to reading with each new release. Her writing first captured my attention with Boneshaker, but since then I’ve only looked backward once. It was high time I decided to read her debut, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and see how she has grown as an author since then. Also, I wanted something to tide me over until Ganymede; Priest’s supernatural fiction seemed to promise something darkly entertaining in this gothic genealogical tale of horrific proportions. The decision to read it was an easy one.
Horror is, in part, a good way to describe this book. Not the grotesquely graphic kind, although there is blood involved, nor the deeply psychologically haunting kind, but there is some of that here as well. Really, it’s a mixture of these two, a balance that lends itself to the gothic nature of grand Southern mansions, ancient matriarchs, and a good ghost story. Throw in a bit of mystery and Eden Moore’s adolescent adventure evolves into a harrowing nightmare of family history set deep in the Florida Everglades.
As a child, Eden realized she could see ghosts. Her teachers and counselors, who are only obliquely familiar with this particular talent through Eden’s childish drawings, are concerned, but her aunt and caretaker, Lulu, is not. To Lulu, Eden’s walking visions are simply part of who she is, but there is something evasive about her acceptance, something vaguely related to her sister and the mother Eden never knew that she keeps from her niece. There are several chapters dedicated to Eden’s childhood and youth, no doubt in place to build a foundation for later revelations and develop the reader’s understanding of just how weird Eden’s version of ‘normal’ is. The rest of the novel focuses on an adult Eden, set roughly in 2005. While most of the action takes place here, it does not retain the eldritch beauty of her childhood.
I use the word beauty, but one might say there is nothing beautiful about Eden’s childhood at all. In fact, it’s slightly alarming. She doesn’t quite know what’s going on with these apparitions nor what it means to see ghosts when others cannot. Rather, beauty is reserved for the bittersweet nostalgia of a time when Eden did not understand the consequences of her gift. When she went to camp, made a friend, or had oddly comforting conversations with three ghostly women. Contrast this to Eden as an adult, her inner torment at not knowing who her mother was and determination to discover the truth, and the novel takes an entirely different direction than it might have gone. Hers is a world dominated by ghosts—the literal and metaphorical kind—but is for most of this story overrun with research and escaping murder attempts.
Priest’s affection for the South has always been fairly evident in her novels, but never more apparent than in this one. Chattanooga and its surrounding areas seemed as real to me as if I’d really been there (I haven’t). This very rich setting of mountains, forests, and swampland set the mood for the strange and confusing Moore family timeline. Eden’s research, the element in the story that seemed to take up a large block of narrative, is not nearly as exciting as her childhood and the last chapters. Mostly this is due to my inadequacy in keeping up with the likes of cousin-brothers, inbreeding and a slew of convoluted relationships that I didn’t take to nearly as well as the dark witchcraft which resulted from this particular family. But for the spoilers one would provide, this book would otherwise benefit from a family tree or some type of chart to help the reader keep everything straight for the final, shocking blow.
Because so much of what I found interesting was rooted in the supernatural, this is where I felt Priest’s writing was at its best. Eden’s investigations, while important to the story, are most engaging when interrupted by ghosts or a raving lunatic bent on killing her. Which would have been disappointing, had he succeeded. In Eden there are echoes of Priest’s later protagonists: she is fiercely independent, comfortable with certain types of weaponry, determined, and utterly courageous. These traits are admirable, but without any real growth or character development, Eden’s journey consumes her entirely and the story becomes a means to an end—one that seems to come rather abruptly, with little else to recommend these events save the knowledge that there are two other books (which I will be reading) in this series.
Still, for what it is, this is an engaging enough novel. Voodoo, polygamy, a sanitarium, and Catholic priests, Four and Twenty Blackbirds has an odd, but successful mixture of the occult and the gothic. Combined with a stunning atmosphere and landscape that Priest has only improved upon with each novel, this makes for a solid debut. Fans of dark urban fantasy will enjoy Eden’s complicated family relations, who can seem more than a little unhinged, but didn’t we all find Mr. Rochester a little creepy as well?
Release Date: September 15, 2005
Reviewed Format: Trade paperback
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