BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Eden Moore sees dead people who warn her of approaching evil.
PROS: Excellent writing; compelling and immersive story; great buildup of tension.
CONS: The “helpful” ghosts were not really very helpful.
BOTTOM LINE: A stunning debut and a worthwhile book.
Has this ever happened to you? You pick up a book, start reading the first page never intending to read more than a page or two to get a feel for the writing and, before you know it, you’re twenty-some-odd pages into it and still want to keep reading? That’s what happened to me with Cherie Priest‘s Southern gothic debut novel: Four and Twenty Blackbirds.
Here’s the deal: The story’s protagonist, Eden Moore, sees ghosts – but not to worry, they are usually harmless. In fact, Eden’s ghosts are descendents in her convoluted and multiracial family tree. Usually the ghosts are there to warn her of danger like the threat of her murderous cousin Malachi. But the ghosts only leave vague clues about an even greater threat that looms in Eden’s future. (Isn’t that just like a ghost to leave vague clues?) The secret that Eden uncovers spells doom for what is left of her scattered family and it promises to resurrect an ancient and magical evil.
One of the best indicators of good storytelling is how much the book pulls you in and immerses you in the story. And with this story, I was fully transported to the spooky southern locales in which it takes place. But a story itself, as compelling as it might be, could easily stall without competent writing to back it up. Fortunately, Cherie Priest delivers the goods. The writing is excellent not just because of the immersion but also because it expertly sets the eerie mood for this supernatural tale of ghosts, murder, magic and resurrection. Her writing style is easy to absorb and it lends itself well to the creepy atmosphere. It was no trouble at all picturing the settings like the abandoned mental institution, the musty, wet swamplands and the ancient mansion of Eden’s estranged aunt Eliza.
Although I had issues with the three sister ghosts (who proved to be not so helpful after all), the rest of the characters populating the novel are well-drawn, realistic and use believable dialogue. I especially liked the tense and strained parent/child relationship Eden had with her Aunt Louise who raised her since Eden was orphaned. Similarly, the scenes with Tatie Eliza, especially the nail-biting scene in the wine cellar, were also very well-done.
Priest does an excellent job of building tension throughout the novel, in fact, up to and including the satisfying ending. Writing that can simultaneously set a mood, flesh out characters and advance plot is a force to be reckoned with. With writing this good appearing in a debut novel, I have no doubts that we will be hearing from Cherie Priest again and again.