I have been busy these past couple of months. I finished my first novel (started last year during NaNoWriMo), which made me very happy. The ending eluded me for quite some time but when it came it was perfect and worth the wait. Some things cannot be rushed, but they can’t be left unfinished forever, either. And with November just around the corner, I’m already thinking about novel number two.
I still managed to find enough time to read, even if only for a few minutes every night, though to be honest those minutes ran into an hour or more and there were many times when I looked at my watch to discover with astonishment that midnight had already come and gone. So I became great friends with instant coffee – a double edged sword, because while it served to wake me up in the morning, it also kept me up at night. But I’m not complaining, because I got to read some amazing books. I was planning to wait until September and read them as part of R.I.P., a challenge hosted by Carl from Stainlesssteeldroppings, but then they looked too tempting to wait that long. So I didn’t.
Speaks the Nightbird – Robert McCammon
A historical fiction novel placed in 1699 in The Carolinas, Speaks the Nightbird is a mystery that kept me turning all of its nearly 800 pages in quite a hurry. Matthew Corbett is a young clerk working for Magistrate Woodward. He is twenty years old, sharp of mind, and curious, a trait that will often land him into trouble. But these qualities are essential, for the work that needs to be done in Fount Royal, the town he and Woodward are traveling to, requires a mind able to untangle a case of witchcraft.
Rachel Howarth is a young widow accused of using the dark arts to kill two men, one of them her husband. Witnesses swear to having seen her perform unnatural acts, and the founder of the town wants nothing more than to see her burn at the stake. But in spite of the damning testimonies – as witnesses confess to all having seen the same thing – Matthew finds there’s more to the whole story and he starts investigating on his own, as Woodward falls ill and fights for his life.
The most intriguing part in the book was reading about the people of Fount Royal. It seems that the colonies, with their promise of a new life, had attracted a fair share of people who hoped that by leaving behind their old life, they could hide and forge a new one. The local teacher, the doctor, the traveling preacher and the rat catcher, a young actor, a servant, the smith, they all have their own secrets to protect and as Matthew begins to stir things up and makes connections, he is able to get to the heart of what is truly haunting the fledgling town. He finds treasure in an unexpected place, befriends a slave, travels through dangerous territory and barely escapes with his life on more than one occasion. He meets Indians, is attacked by a giant bear, and learns that truth requires the highest price, which he is willing to pay.
What made him an interesting character was not only his curiosity, but also his need to expose the truth. An orphan, Matthew grew up in an orphanage, and had very few friends. Magistrate Woodward chose him as his apprentice, and the two men had a relationship close to that between a father and a son. Woodward had his secrets, too, and Matthew heard snippets of them at night, when the magistrate was tormented by nightmares.
This was my first Robert McCammon book, and I loved it so much that when I finished reading it I went out and bought the second one. It’s the first in the Matthew Corbett series, with a total of five books released so far, out of the ten book series planned by the author. Two books down, three more to go, and as for the rest I’ll just have to wait patiently. If you’re curious, here’s an excerpt from the author’s website.
The second book in the series, The Queen of Bedlam, starts in 1702, three years after the first one. Matthew is now working in New York, a town in its infancy, and his employer is Magistrate Powers, a friend of Matthew’s old mentor, Magistrate Woodward.
Murder is haunting the streets of New York, claiming the lives of three respectable citizens: a doctor, a successful businessman, and Matthew’s old enemy, Eben Ausley, the manager of the orphanage where Matthew grew up. Eben’s murder piques Matthew’s curiosity, and once he sets his mind to discover the connection between the victims, there is nothing left to do but get to the truth.
Details from the first book come back now and then, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that you can well enjoy this book even if you haven’t read the first one.
The Masker – as the killer is named – proves to be quite a mystery, but Matthew is up for the challenge. With the help of a few friends, among them Marmaduke Grigsby – the owner of the local newspaper, and his granddaughter, Berry – an ambitious artist in the making, Matthew gets to work. His curiosity attracts the attention of a few notable people, one of them his future employer, Mrs Herrald, who runs an agency specialized in “problem solving”. It’s not long before Matthew discovers that the assignment he’s working on, establishing the identity of a mysterious elderly woman nicknamed “the Queen of Bedlam”, is connected with the Masker’s murders, and once again he’s right in the middle of things. Danger is not far off, and Matthew is yet again forced to use all his wits in order to escape alive.
As in the previous book, McCammon succeeds in setting up an interesting case quite early in the book, and then proceeds to throw doubt upon a few of the characters. Everybody has secrets, and as they slowly surface, it feels like a well constructed web with astonishing ramifications. Who is the woman nicknamed “The Queen”, and why does she always ask for the “King’s reply”? Why is the local reverend standing in front of Madam Polly Blossom’s whorehouse at night, crying? And why is a young and successful lawyer living his life as if in a hurry to get to the end of it? As Matthew begins to understand, he uncovers a plot of astonishing proportions, and makes a deadly enemy. The blood card, a white card with a bloody fingerprint, is left for him at his house, and Matthew knows what that means: a death vow given by Professor Fell, the person whose plans he has managed to ruin in his quest for the truth. And he also knows that the Professor’s threat is the reason why he can’t let people get too close, for fear they might be killed because of him.
I had to admit I liked Speaks the Nightbird better because of its setting and also the shadow of witchcraft under which the events took place. For the longest time I was not sure what to believe, and when the ending was revealed it was so unexpected and at the same time perfectly reasonable.
The Queen of Bedlam felt more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, which is also fine, but it didn’t have the same impact on me. I would still recommend the both of them. I’m happy to say that Robert McCammon has just become a new favorite author and I’m eager to read more of his books.
The Rats – James Herbert
My first James Herbert novel was The Secret of Crickley Hall, a great story of a haunted house, and since then I’ve made a mental note to read more of Herbert’s work. After seeing this 2014 edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, I decided it was about time to get reacquainted with Herbert’s work.
Reading “The Rats” reminded me of the time when I was reading Stephen King’s The Shining. Not since then have I felt so scared, but Herbert’s novel went further and made my skin crawl. The imagery is quite graphic, with detailed descriptions of people being eaten alive by a new species of rats, faster, bigger and apparently more intelligent than their ordinary cousins, the sewer rats. Herbert gives enough details about each of the victims to make them sympathetic to the reader, but after a few gruesome deaths I started to wonder if this was ever going to be more than an endless description of rat feast.
Enters Harris, a young teacher at a local high school, who takes one of his students to the hospital after the boy gets bitten by a rat. The boy dies the next day, and as more victims arrive at the hospital and then die a painful death, the city officials try to get to the source of the problem. Harris becomes involved in the operation, and gets to see the huge rats for himself while trying to protect the students from a rat invasion. It all sounds awful, doesn’t it? At just under 200 pages, the book is packed with enough action and detail to satisfy the appetite of any horror fan. I loved it.
The ending is a promise of more gruesome things to come, and I look forward to discovering them. My only regret is that there wasn’t a book with all three novels in it. That would have made me one very happy horror fan.