We interrupt this month of mystery with a dark fantasy recommended by my daughter!
As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.
Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.
JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES
Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?
I had originally planned a mystery for today, but once I saw my selection directly tied back to a previous book without much context, I took my daughter Blondie’s offer to read Beasts and Beauty by Soman Chainani instead. I’m so glad I did!
The illustrations of the first story, “Red Riding Hood,” are stark and bleak–a perfect balance with the vivid yet succinct prose that describes the story-world. Just look at this first sentence: “On the first day of spring, the wolves eat the prettiest girl.” That right there is intense and violent while also providing a sense of time and action. Even though the story is written in third-person omniscient, we as readers feel like we are a part of the story, watching the girl who never thought herself beautiful be chosen by the wolves for their meal. We watch her discard fear, take up her red cloak and knife, and enter the forest. We have heard this tale a thousand times, yet we cannot help but read on, for we don’t know where Chainani’s unique tellings will take us. His control over language is pure magic, and I cannot wait to see his imagination play with the story-worlds of Snow White, Peter Pan, and other classic fairy tale folk.
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October is here, and with it the joy of reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.
Let us break for a wee spell from the lovely indie fiction to venture down paths dark and mysterious. I’ve got some fun frights recommended to me by other neato book reviewers as well as some spooky stories by authors I’ve not had a chance to taste before. Let us continue with Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.
What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!
When plans changed, I wasn’t sure I could follow through on that banner, if this book would be “coming” at all.
But it has come. Thanks to the support of amazing souls like you, I was able to bring this book together and put it on the virtual bookshelf.
You wouldn’t let me give up. You saw something in me worth saving. You gave me hope.
You are the community that keeps me reading, writing, sharing, exploring. Your friendship is a blessing I thank God for each and every day.
You’ve even been sharing your reviews on Booksprout, Goodreads, and Amazon!
Already captivated by Jean Lee’s first book in the ‘Fallen Princeborn’ series, I was excited to get my hands on the ARC of ‘Fallen Princeborn: Chosen’. And I was not disappointed at all; what a richly told tale this continues to be.
The reader is launched straight back to where we left Charlotte and Liam at the close of ‘Fallen Princeborn: Stolen’. The action is intense and the wonderful world-building welcomes the reader back to this highly original, magical fantasy world.
The story continues and the action ramps up another notch. We are in familiar, yet unfamiliar territory of shape-shifting creatures, dark magic, old friends and even older and more frightening foes. Real page-turning excitement (and dread). How will Charlotte, and the magical folk, who are now her surrogate family, survive?
Not only is the story immersive, the principle characters are complex and the author’s depth of description provide a camera-roll of powerful images for the reader. From the Stellaqui sea creatures to the celestial Celestine and the House, we have a spellbinding array of classy cast members. Battles are fought and guts are ripped out; dark and dreadful scenes of sexual abuse and violence are played out too. These scenes are not for the faint-hearted, but not one of them is gratuitous.
Some ‘middle’ novels don’t quite cut it, but this one certainly does. So much more of this rich series plays out and the reader is left breathless for more. “Nothing smells as amazing as hope,” says one of the characters. It’s my hope that book three will not be too long in coming.
I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout and am voluntarily leaving a review.
In the meantime, there’s school work to tend to, so allow me to leave you with the first chapter. If you like what you see here, I hope you’ll give this series a go!
Cold Dawn, Colder Drums
Ashes. Paper. Tea. Pie.
Charlotte blinks once, twice, to living color dancing about the library.
Yes, she’s sitting at Liam’s feet, having fallen asleep with her head resting on his knee. Liam’s fingers have wound themselves into her hair.
The hearth is cold, and the stale food… unsettling. Shouldn’t Arlen be in the kitchen by now, scolding Dorjan for raiding the fridge? Shouldn’t there be a kettle whistling for the velifol tea? How in brewin’ blazes are they going to defend Rose House against Campion and the Lady?
Charlotte slowly slips her hand beneath Liam’s to free his fingers from her hair. Still too many cuts and burns for her liking on his calloused skin. The Lady’s claws must have struck near his neck, where angry red inflammation peeks out from under Liam’s white tunic. The leather brace for his blood dagger seems to restrict the rise and fall of Liam’s chest, so Charlotte holds her hand up to Liam’s mouth and nose, and feels fitful breaths. Dreaming, maybe.
The teeniest, teeniest bit of space buffers her palm and his lips. She could close that space. Not, not too much: Charlotte’s thumb caresses Liam’s upper lip. Just once. It’d be nice to know his lips feel… oh yes, they feel so very different when not covered by musty facial hair. A dull violet glow emanates from just beneath Liam’s chair: the stone from Orna’s ring. Charlotte bends forward, chin on the floor, eyes almost crossing as she gazes deep into such a simple little thing, like marble, opaque with an inner shine. That shine’s got a power even Arlen doesn’t wanna touch. We better hide this, House, before a nasty Incomplete snatches it from Liam. She poises her thumb behind the stone, sticks out her tongue as she aims, and with a flick, the stone rolls into a little hole in the wall beneath the stained glass window. One eyeblink later, and the hole’s gone. Eight ball in the corner pocket. Thanks, House.
Time to find Arlen.
Charlotte hugs herself against the chilly summer morning as her feet pad softly down the corridor into the kitchen. No Arlen, no Dorjan.
Morning air clings to the Rose House’s walls, wary. Scared.
“House, where are they?”
A moment of silence. Then voices and distant footfalls: the third floor. But not Arlen or Dorjan: the gravelly voice booming orders has got to be Devyn, leading the other scouts to harvest the velifol flowers.
So Charlotte checks the patio. It did sound like the uncle and nephew went outside last night. Maybe they’re harvesting mint, or parsley, or whatever it is they use for pies—Charlotte never really paid attention to the cooking stuff. “Arlen?” She cups her hands to yell, “Dorjan!” Frost glitters upon the flowers beneath Rose House’s shadow, but under Charlotte’s feet the frost feels different.
It’s not melting.
And there is a rhythm.
Squeaks run through the silent halls and out into the kitchen: Poppy as her mouse self, scared.
“What’s going on?” Charlotte asks as Poppy changes before her. Though I think I can guess.
“Danger, Miss Charlotte, Danger!” Poppy says before her whiskers have the chance to vanish. “Terrible, terrible things below. Campion and the Lady, they got all juiced up and stronger than before and they’re just totally super angry, and they wanna get the Incomplete meanies up here, and they wanna just, they wanna, oh, they wanna—”
“Retaliate.” The human version of Ember lands on a patio chair, feathers not fully transformed into orange patchwork fabric. Her skin reflects the early morning sun from the hall window, turning her white with the frost. “Something’s helped the Lady regain her strength. Eating an Incomplete, perhaps, heart’s fire knows, but she’s moving through the tunnels, and Campion’s at her side,” she says, her voice cracking under her former friend’s name.
“So Devyn’s getting the scouts to take the velifol?”
Distant thunder rumbles under a blue sky. Then Charlotte realizes the thunder’s not from above. Oh. Shit. “Arlen and Dorjan, where are they?”
Ember’s voice remains smooth, but biting her lip doesn’t hide the trembling of her chin. “Not in Rose House, we’ve looked. The wolf kin can protect Arlen, I’m sure.”
Charlotte nods, but this idea of the Lady of the Pits somehow getting out again and acquiring new power despite Liam slicing her face off and taking that magic violet stone from her ring…. How the hell does she find more power inside a bunch of tunnels? And Campion’s bones were broken to bits. Something is wrong, way too damn wrong. “Okay. You’re right. They can take care of themselves.” Because to say it out loud makes it feel more possible, more true. She will not allow her body to shake as Poppy’s does, even And Poppy’s shaking only makes it worse with the thunder rippling through the ground again, this time upsetting the patio stones. She will not let the fear freeze her as frost does a flower.
Ember nods curtly. “We must hope Master Liam’s tree withstands the attack. Come, Poppy, we need to carry what we can.”
Poppy grabs Charlotte’s arm. “But we can’t leave Miss Charlotte! She’s my bestest friend, and she’s so nice, and she could come with us and be super helpful and—”
But Charlotte shoves Poppy towards Ember. “No, stay together. I’ll get out with Liam.”
“She is right, Poppy.” Feathers tuft through Ember’s neck and hands. “Upstairs.”
Another rumble. A patio chair topples.
Poppy gulps a breath, then two, then takes off, changing as she goes.
Ember takes a steadying breath. “You will hide,” she turns to Charlotte, “won’t you?”
Well what do you know. She kinda actually cares about the human in these here parts. A little. Maybe.
The frost thickens, latching onto Charlotte’s toes. “Long enough to see what that snake bitch’s hatched, yeah.” Another rumble bumps them both up and down. “You go, the House’n’I will buy you some time.”
Ember’s exhale mingles with the cloud of ash and feather already taking shape round her body. “We’re going to the far side of Lake Aranina. It is hopefully too far for the misshapen limbs of the Incomplete to run.”
“Far side, got it.”
Arms are wings, legs are shrinking. “Let us hope your luck carries us all through this day.” The orange bird soars up, plucks something from the rooftop, and darts south for the lake and beyond.
Ashes touch the air.
And a cackle.
A shriek, far and away.
Two entrances out of the Pits, both unlocked. One out in the woods.
And one inside Rose House.
“Liam!” Charlotte slams the patio door, locks it—idiot, it’s fucking glass—and bolts for the library.
Liam has yet to move, eyes closed, breath still slow.
“Liam you have to wake up!” Charlotte shakes him, cups his cheeks, brings her face close—dammit, this isn’t time for that, so she slaps his cheek. “Liam!” She yells in his ear.
Pounding, pounding below her feet.
They are coming.
Click here to scope out Fallen Princeborn: Chosen‘s Amazon, Booksprout, and Goodreads pages. If you read the ARC already, I can’t wait to see your review appear. Again, thank you all for your support! Stay safe, stay sane, and be the reason someone smiles today–you’ve already blessed me with a happy creative heart. x
I’ve been honored by other amazing indie author’s invitations to share my stories and thoughts on craft. Today’s share is a podcast I did with fellow fantasy writer Neil Mach. We covered all sorts of gleeful things, from flawed heroines to our mutual love of spaghetti westerns. I hope you enjoy it!
Lastly–for I don’t want to scamper off so soon, but there’s been one of those delightful domestic disturbances of a broken garbage disposal to deal with–here’s a sneak peak into one of my chapters of Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Charlotte’s been separated from the others and in trapped inThe Pits. Only one thing could make it worse:
She is not alone.
Charlotte’s body slams into the ice-cold clay of the Pits. She slides down the tunnel, faster and faster, until it evens out and she slows to a stop. This clay is a little less damp, the air a little less putrid. And light: barely, but there. Any light at all must mean the atrium. So, breathe through your god-damn nose, Charlie, and sneak on over that way to get help.
But why would Orna trap you down here only to let you out again? The Voice puzzles.
Shut up, no one asked you.
Toes first. Charlotte wriggles them into place, then carefully brings weight back down on her heels. Charlotte holds the bone-knife before her, ready to slash and swipe, while her free hand finds the tunnel’s side and presses it gently. Step by step. Forward.
Stop breathing through your mouth, Charlie!
But Charlie isn’t breathing through her mouth.
In the void ahead…somewhere, someone is breathing. Slurping. A click-popping, almost like a frog’s broken croak.
Charlotte pauses. Looks back. Ahead.
Another broken croak. Followed by a slow, slow rattle.
Orna—or a Hisser?—lies ahead.
Charlotte takes another step.
The rattle stops.
Charlotte slaps her hand over her face. Counts her breaths and reaches for the pendant that’s not there. Dammit, Dad, I wish I had a piece of you with me like I did that first time down here.
But even though Charlotte’s alone in the darkness, she is not alone. Liam and Arlen can find me, and they will find me if I ain’t quiet.
“Bring it on, bitch!” Darkness sucks her words into the void.
The rattle starts again. The croaking quickens to a sort of buzz…
Charlotte’s fingers groove the tunnel’s side as she walks with blind briskness. Colors squiggle where her eyes strain for light, but the air continues to freshen—she is moving towards the atrium. “How the hell can you even see me in this dark? Ha! Can you see the reeeal me…” Charlotte starts to sing, and the rattle ramps up its insane rhythm. The Voice in Charlotte’s heart laughs as it presses the bellows to the rhythm of Charlotte’s favorite Who song. Orna’s henchman Cein thought he could take it from her—hell to the no on that.
“Can you see the real me, preacher? Preacher?!”
The rattle keeps getting louder, but now Charlotte sees a clear, definable web of light ahead—the tunnel’s exit into the atrium of the Pits.
“Can you see, can you see, can you see?” Charlotte runs and slides out of the tunnel, singing,
“Can you see the real me, doctor?!”
The atrium is a graveyard of branch and bone. Ash floats lazily in the air like dust mites. A wide gaping mouth high in the wall above Orna’s old platform still hangs open, drooling its lines of glass droplets—the old channel for the water road, now crystalized tears of dead magic because of the Wall.
Charlotte looks up to the atrium’s ceiling, where the white tree once grew. New roots, black as pitch, are sewing the gap shut. But in this moment shards of light can still sneak through. She breathes deep and belts as loud as she can, “Can you see the real me, Maaaaaaama?!” she holds that last “Ma,” ready to sing herself hoarse—
“No. No. No. No. No.”
Charlotte spins around. In another tunnel’s entrance stands a pale shadow. The bottom half writhes, and the rattle grows louder. Two needle-thin arms stick out and shoot up as though a child is positioning the limbs. Ten fingers as long and sharp as snake fangs jerk out, jerk up, and take hold of the head slumped to one side. They wrench it upright. Mangled, oily locks of hair fall into place, but the tongue remains free to slurp and drool where it wants.
Inside, Charlotte wants to gag. What drunk sewed your face back on?!? Outside, Charlotte sticks her hands on her hips. “What, no Anna skin this time? I could describe my grandma to you if you want. Always did want to punch that hag in the mouth.”
The rattle tones back. “Ha ha ha ha.” Her lips don’t—or can’t—move. The tongue slithers about in the air and catches Charlotte’s scent. It wavers in Charlotte’s direction, and Orna’s snake-half finally slinks forward in short, halting movements. The hands jerk free of her head, and The Lady’s head flops to the side once more. Her fingers move in mechanical fashion at Charlotte, even as one finger falls off to the ground, lifeless at last. Orna’s eyes look pathetic without the menacing stars that once glowed in them.
Charlotte scoffs. “Jeez, even I could kill you now.”
“Charlotte?!” The cry flies down through the crevices. Yet the roots still grow, bridging every gap they find.
Charlotte sticks her bone knife back into the red belt. “Pardon me for just a second,” she says to the herky-jerky Lady and cups her hands to her mouth. “DOWN HERE!”
“An an an ha ha ha.”
Charlotte’s eyes narrow at the name. “That name’s got no power comin’ out of your stupid-ass mouth. Damn, even I can sew better’n’that..” She pulls out the bone-knife—
—almost too late.
Orna’s tongue whips far longer than before, missing Charlotte’s shoulder by a hair. Charlotte rolls to the side and curses at herself. “Yeah, Charlie, you can really slay the snake-lady easy peasy, can’tcha?”
The roots threading the atrium’s ceiling shake and crack, but don’t break. Thunder shakes from within a tunnel, echoes of light rippling out the tunnel’s sides to die in the atrium.
Orna’s tongue blossoms into three, then five, then ten translucent pink living whips. The stitches at the bottom of her face rip as her jaw unhinges wide enough to swallow a human. The hydra-tongue descends—
Charlotte leaps aside and slashes with the bone-knife. Dammit, this ain’t no blood dagger! But the blade is wicked sharp and takes out one of the tongues. It flops fish-like on the ground, spurts of oil and veli barely missing Charlotte’s leg.
She runs away before Orna’s hydra-tongue can take aim again. If I can slash up the snake part, I bet I could bleed the bitch out. She spots the serpent portion of Orna’s body, its peeling, sick skin caught on the rocks littering the tunnel’s entrance. Charlotte picks up speed, bone-knife aimed for the massive molting serpent—
Fire lights up the atrium. Roots rain ash as Liam’s blood sword burns through them all. He rolls, sheathes the blade, transforms mid-fall into the golden eagle, talons at the ready.
Charlotte’s knife strikes hard and deep into the snake’s belly. Oil laced with veli oozes from the gash. The funk of rot floods Charlotte’s nostrils.
Thunder builds in the tunnel. There’s a light, white and spectral, running with the thunder…
Orna’s body shakes and screams. Her head flops as the hydra-tongue feels the air for Charlotte.
It finds Liam’s talons instead.
“Liam fly up, NOW!” Charlotte screams. The hydra-tongue quickly coils round both Liam’s legs. Liam’s whole body burns feathers of fire, but the tongues don’t give. He transforms and hangs upside-down several feet above Orna’s gaping jaws.
The empty eyes meet his. A moan of pleasure oozes from her mouth.
The blood dagger slips from its sheath into Liam’s hand, and he slashes one leg free. Charlotte runs and aims for those needle arms, ready to rip one out.
“Can you see, can you see—” A tenor voice barrels out of the tunnel, followed by a pale figure wielding a sword of white light. Charlotte slides to a stop as he lops the bottom half of Orna’s jaw clean off. “Can you seeeee the real me?!”
Orna’s eyes roll towards him. A geyser of oil and screams erupt at the base of her tongue.
Liam slashes his other foot free, and he somersaults to the ground.
The pale figure wraps his hand in a hank of Orna’s hair and lifts her oily, sparkling half-face off the ground and right up to his own, the star-less orbs even darker next to his white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes. “You should have played the game my way.” Her herky-jerky arms begin to reach out, but he stomps down on her breasts and pops her head off with a thock! He tosses the head over his shoulder, spins the light sword. It flickers down into a broad, thick dagger with vicious claw marks crisscrossing in its steel. He slips the dagger into a leather sheath strapped to his right calf, then looks at Liam. “And where in Aether’s Fire have you been?”
Good morning, friends! The autumn leaves have all but fallen here, and the glorious color I was blessed to share with you in my newsletter a few days ago is slowly parting. To celebrate the coming release of my new novel Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, I’m back to share a bit more background on my Fallen Princeborn series.
The inspiration for a number of my Fallen Princeborn characters comes from the PBS shows I enjoyed in my childhood. Arlen, Liam’s teacher, is rooted in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael character, whose series I loved both watching and reading. Here was a man who held to his own principals no matter the dictates of the world around him. He found a divine peace in nature, and was not afraid to help others in need.
Liam’s parents, though, are something else entirely, inspired by something I saw because of Sir Derek Jacobi: the epic historical miniseries I, Claudius. If you have not seen this series, I HIGHLY recommend it.
As you can see from the interview, the chemistry between Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips was–and is–still magical. Together they make not just a couple, but the couple–Ceasar and his wife. There is no denying Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, but the wife? Ah, not even Ceasar knows what she truly wants. The power-plays they commit together and against each other are part of what made this series and book such a fascinating study in family drama, and their relationship showed me as a storyteller that an action-packed scene need be nothing more than a conversation between two dangerously driven characters.
In Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, there is a flashback into Liam’s childhood where Charlotte briefly sees Liam’s parents. In Chosen, she meets them in person.
It goes about as well as you would think.
The present-day Lord Bearnard Artair bears some resemblance to the figure Charlotte witnessed in Liam’s memory. He is shorter than Arlen and Liam, his body still rough and stocky, only now beneath a tailored pinstripe suit. His flaxen hair has greyed. But his face shows more wear than anything else: the crescent bags beneath his eyes, the slight jowls beneath his cheekbones. A jagged scar runs down his right cheek. A muscle above the scar twitches a little. …. Rose House seems to shift beneath Charlotte’s feet. A stench of dread wafts from Liam, still stiff and silent behind her. “You never said your name.” She adds a spit bubble for a pop of a period, just like her sister would do with bubble gum.
The chuckle dies on Lord Artair’s lips and in his eyes. Yet the corners of his lips remain turned up with a sick sort of glee. Jeez, Santa Claus to psycho in two seconds flat.
“I, human, am Liam’s father, Lord Bearnard Artair. And you will do well to show some respect, lest I find you a fitter meal than what is being served later this day.” His frog-like eyes stare, unblinking, at Charlotte’s face and through it. She can feel him trying to page through her mind, thumbs all licked up and gross.
While Charlotte has no qualms about battling a pair of immortal meglomaniacs, Liam is another matter.
His mother stands with her back to them all, facing Liam’s tree.
It’s maintained its beauty and terror—a lightning storm above the sea, that’s what he imagined as he brought silver ore to shape and sheen. The branches leading to the troughs in the glass house are intact, though many of the glass frames are broken. The silver roots embedded in the floor boards from the tree into the intended rooms for humans remain, even if the floorboards around them were torn up or smashed. Any room with a human had been destroyed—Liam’s sure he can see through the broken walls all the way down to either end of Rose House.
“I must say, I could not bring myself to destroy this peculiar sculpture.” Her voice is as measured and cool as it ever was. “I was pleased to see you had gotten rid of several portraits—though one modern girl appeared in several mediums. Recently, by the feel of the clay.” Lady Treasa Artair turns.
Liam loses his breath.
Where his father’s body betrayed his age, his mother shows hardly a century’s passing. A few gray hairs color her temples, noticeable only because her hair is raven dark and pulled back into a bun at the back of her head. Gold jewelry older than several revolutions adorns her manicured fingers, a gold chain belt and necklace against her billowing black silk shirt and pants. Heeled boots peek out from the cuffs. …. “And here you are.” Her painted red lips smile. “My little eaglet’s returned to me at last.” Her heels click clack across the room. She holds out her hands. “Come, Liam, embrace your mother.” His hands tug up, knees tug forward. But he bows his head and hides behind a curtain of curls. A tall woman, Lady Artair can hold her son and rest her sharp chin upon his shoulder. Her perfume assaults his nostrils. “So shy? So mute? But you are injured.”
Every time I watch I, Claudius, I am transfixed by Livia. She speaks much, but listens more. She grants many favors, but ties a thread to every one, and you never know when she’ll pull upon that thread, summoning you back to do a certain thing, a little thing, a thing which affects you so little…and the royal family so much.
Livia’s presence felt supernaturally powerful to me, and for a long time I could not work out why. Only when I was sharing bits of my own childhood with the kids was the mystery revealed.
And that reveal came with the Ewoks.
Yes, I’m serious.
Did you see her in all the black hair and feathers? How the heck did I forget this woman???
But that’s the thing–I didn’t. This Livia-Witch buried herself deep into my psyche, just as Jacobi’s voice encapsulated the impossible because of The Secret of NIMH. That which captured our imaginations as children never truly leaves us. Our imaginations may escape to engage with other wonders, but they will always turn around to look back, back into curiosities of those young years. And perhaps, if one is very lucky, there will be that portal in this everyday present that transports your imagination into the past. I found my portals with Jacobi and Phillips, for their performances gave shape and sound to one of the greatest, bestest things I have always adored in stories:
Do you have any favorite villainous and/or dramatic families in literature? I’d love to hear about them!
Nothing grinds my storyteller-gears like set-ups that go nowhere. As writers, we don’t want to be too predictable, but we also know that subverting expectations is a HUGE risk that does not always pay off. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams is notorious for his “Mystery Boxes,” a method where one establishes several plot questions and mysteries early in the story to hook the audience and keep them riveted. Do Mystery Boxes have a place in storytelling? Of course. The problem comes when the content inside the Mystery Boxes fails to meet expectations.
And you do want to know, don’t you? Want to know if those stories your mother told you are true. If I really killed them all. If I am that mad. This is the story as I recall it, and yours now too, to guard or treasure or forget as you please. I wanted someone to know, you see. To know my truth, now that I am gone. How everything and none of it happened. (17)
The marvelousS.J. Higbee recommended Camilla Bruce’s suspense-filled tale of dark fantasy…or horror-fantasy? I’ll call this a suspense-fantasy with a taste for blood. Anyway, Sarah highly recommended the novel, and her recommendations do not come lightly. When my copy came in at the library, I tore through Bruce’s narrative in just a few days. It wasn’t for the world-building, mystery, or drama–all of which were aces in this book, for the record. Actually, it was Bruce’s work paying off expectations that really impressed me.
Let’s start on the very first page, a prologue of sorts in the form of a newspaper clipping detailing renowned writer Cassandra Tipp’s disappearance.
She has a history here, Officer William Parks Jr. said. The officer is no doubt referring to the trial following her husband’s violent death 38 years ago, where Cassandra Tipp was a suspect. The murder and its aftermath launched Mrs. Tipp’s writing career; her fame partly due to her therapist, Dr. V. Martin’s book about the case, “Away with the Fairies: A Study in Trauma-Induced Psychosis”, which briefly climbed the bestseller lists.
Woah! So this famous romance novelist was suspected of MURDERING her husband?! We haven’t even started the story yet, but we are intrigued. As readers, we picture what we think a romance novelist is like. Tipp presumes her nephew wonders the same thing as he and his sister embark on the directions Tipp’s lawyer gave for the two to inherit their mysterious aunt’s money: “How could a childless widow write so much about romance and love?” (15). The two find a manuscript in Tipp’s house, the final manuscript she will ever write. The lawyer’s directions to the siblings were clear: the manuscript must be read in order to find the code word needed to access the inheritance. When the two read the above excerpt from page 17, we readers are now wondering whether or not we’re entering Unreliable Narrator territory. After all, there was a doctor who said this Tipp lady was psychotic. And not just any psychotic, but a psychotic writer, which means Cassandra Tipp isn’t going to simply tell it like it is. Oh no–this character’s life comes in a fragmented sequence, shifting about in time, alluding to people and things in different eras of her life so you are always curious about something.
Take the opening of the next chapter on page 19. Tipp describes her husband and what he was like.
Who doesn’t love a redeemed villain, an angel with the alluring taint of sin? I never was so blind, never wanted him for being dangerous; I already had a dangerous lover–already knew the taste of sin. No wonder the ladies were cross, though, when his gorgeous body was found in the woods. But I’m moving too fast, we’re not there yet. A lot of things happened before that. One thing you must know: I was never a good girl.
As you can see, Cassandra Tipp is not going to “spill the tea” so easily, which means Camilla Bruce isn’t going to give away all this story’s secrets so quickly. This moment contains an example of something Bruce–and thereby the protagonist Tipp–does to “set up” the readers and stretch their expectations: she alludes to the promise of telling it all, and then diverts readers with something else, be it another experience or the introduction of a new character, like the Faerie named Pepper-Man. The promises are shared frequently throughout the book, such as two chapters later, when Cassandra Tipp interrupts her experiences to address her niece and nephew from within the manuscript:
This isn’t the story you expected. You were expecting a repenting sinner’s last confession. Expecting me to cry on the page, admit my wrongdoings and beg your forgiveness. Instead you et this: childhood memories. I am sorry about that–sorry to disappoint, but the truth of it is, I cannot recall a world without Pepper-Man in it, and him being in it was the beginning of it all. We will get to the bodies eventually. (33)
Not just “body.” BodIES. Don’t ask about those bodies yet, though, for we have been promised to learn “eventually.” The word choice here hints to readers that whatever explanation will come about the bodies is a long way off. At this point, however, I doubt many readers are complaining, for now there’s this Faerie companion to try and understand. Camilla Bruce does not completely open Pepper-Man’s Mystery Box, for protagonist Cassandra Tipp is given multiple “claims” from the Pepper-Man on how he came to be in her life. All that matters is that he is in her life, changing as she changes both mentally and physically. As a girl, Cassandra is in constant conflict with her mother, a woman who hates nature and wild, unkempt creatures. The fighting is often violent, and results in Cassandra spending most of her time locked in her room.
I would think back on this time of ceaseless fighting later, when I was the one who had to fight–in vain–to make a teenage girl see reason. It’s as hard as catching a slick fish, the way she skitters and twirls out of reach. (53)
Please keep in mind, Cassandra Tipp is telling us on page 53 that she “was the one” fighting with a teenage girl–that is, that Cassandra Tippis a mother. Yet didn’t we hear in the very beginning that she was childless?
Indeed we did. Another Mystery Box has been set before us, one just as bright and intriguing as the murdered bodIES. Is Camilla Bruce going to keep presenting these boxes, or is she going to start opening some?
Considering I don’t want to open all these boxes before you get a chance to read the story, I will allow us to peek into a couple, just to prove that You Let Me In isn’t the Dark Faerie version of The Force Awakens.
Recall how the prologue alluded to the murder of Cassandra Tipp’s husband and her place in the case. Camilla Bruce sprinkles the promises that Tipp will tell us at various places in the first 100 pages, each promise revealing just a smidge more new information. Take this excerpt of a conversation between Tipp and her psychologist Dr. Martin:
“I did kill him, T-; I mean, but that was a long, long time ago.” “You see, we disagree about that. I remember very well meeting you and T- at your house, and he seemed very much alive to me. Very much flesh and blood. Very much a man.” “He was supposed to appear so,” she said patiently, as if I [Dr. Martin] were a child. “But it wasn’t really real, you know. When the spell finally broke, his body would just be twigs and moss again.” “That is not what the police found in the woods.” I kept my voice calm. “They found several body parts. All of them were human.” (69)
Oh…so, we are not just dealing with a body. We are dealing with “parts” in the woods. This sounds vicious, cruel, inhuman.
But that is all we are given. So we must read on.
And now, my young friends, it’s finally time to talk about Tommy Tipp and what happened to him in those woods. (83)
You would be confused at this point, I guess. This all happened long before you were born, yet you have met Tommy Tipp many times. He was my husband for over a decade, so how could he have died at twenty-four? Tommy was not what you thought he was, but then I have told you that already. If you keep turning the pages, I will tell you just what he was. (102)
You see those page numbers? Almost 20 pages go by, and Cassandra’s truth about Tommy Tipp is still not complete. Camilla Bruce carefully paces the information so that as one Mystery Box is slowly opened we are constantly distracted by a different Mystery Box, such as Cassandra Tipp’s aforementioned “teenage girl.” Cassandra Tip rarely mentions her in the first 100 pages.
“Denial, my dear,” Dr. Martin said. “Denial is a powerful drive.” “Mara says that you are the one in denial, and that she will leave a token on your pillow tonight to prove it.” …. Mara said later that she had indeed visited the doctor that night leaving half a leaf and acorn by his side. Dr. Martin never mentioned it, though, so either he had not seen it…or maybe–just maybe–he too was in denial. (76)
It is not until after Cassandra’s wedding to Tommy Tipp–and that Mystery Box, as it were, was fully opened–that Camilla Bruce lets us pay more attention to Mara.
“A faerie bride,” she whispered. “That is what my mother is.” “A faerie child,” I whispered back. “That is what my daughter is.” ~*~ I guess that through all this you have started to wonder about Mara. Who is this person so dear to me, yet absent from your mother’s memories, this woman who draws me to the mound and calls me Mother? The young girl I have been fighting with–and warning you about, though perhaps not strongly enough? I’ll tell you about Mara, and how she came to be. (121-2)
This is a section where readers’ wonderings about an unreliable narrator strengthen. Dr. Martin’s study of Cassandra Tipp becomes more scientific, more “expert” in matters of the mind and how it copes with trauma. Cassandra herself gives us two different tales of what happened to her body as a teenager. Camilla Bruce does not direct readers one way or the other. All readers know is that questions remain, and the answers to those questions are rarely easy. Or safe.
…questions about what happened later–those other deaths that occurred…I guess I owe you some answers about that. The “family tragedy.” The violent end. Somebody ought to know what really happened. And so I keep writing–and you two keep reading. (137)
I’ll end my analysis here, so as not to ruin any more surprises for you. Obviously I highly recommend You Let Me Infor an unsettling, thoughtful read to pass the time on a chilly autumnal day. But I recommend this book even more to my fellow writers, for we all can use a good reminder of what it means to pay off those expectations. No matter how much our Mystery Boxes sparkle with magic and intrigue on the outside, the inside–the payoff, the promise, the end–must be just as unique as that which enticed readers in the first place. If not, then our stories will be forgotten beneath the tattered scraps of expectations our readers throw away.
I’ve another lovely interview with an indie author coming up! I’m also hoping to share some highlights from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen as we grow nearer to its release later this month.
Throw in the twins’ virtual schooling and my promotion to full-time teaching at the university, and we’ll have an interesting October, indeed. x
From White Witches to innocent-looking aunties, you’ll find a wealth of discussion on villains in books, graphic novels, and more. I was honored to contribute this year with an analysis of Black Maria. Do check out the series–every article’s a feast for the mind and imagination!
Now, back to that first chapter. The plowman’s ushering Chloe Watchman and her family out of their car and into the Crow’s Nest. We’ve some other family to look out for besides this frightening “mother” figure: two brothers, Sal and Reg. Let’s see if we meet them today.
Writing Music: Philip Glass, Notes on a Scandal
Harsh white light from somewhere overhead switched on, turning the plowman’s skin the color of bone. “I’ll help you unload, get us all in faster….unless you’d rather stay here.”
Chloe’s mother exhaled an icy breath onto her window, erasing the outside–and the plowman– from her sight. “I’d prefer it,” she said flatly.
“Ang.” Chloe’s father shook his head as he stepped out of the car. He held a hand out to the plowman over the windshield. “Sorry, it’s been a long road. Thomas Watchman, Angela’s husband.”
The plowman removed his cowboy hat and held it to his chest. “Sumac, Sir, at your service,” he said with a little bow and a strong handshake. Very strong. Her father had the biggest hands Chloe ever knew, but this plowman’s were just as big, with hairy blonde knuckles that practicallyl turned his hands into paws. No wonder he had no gloves on.
Chloe slid out of the backseat into the snow, quietly watching as the two men gripped hands over the station wagon, smiling fine while also tugging like they wanted to pull the other over the car. Snow was spilling over the tops of her boots and melting down to her heels. Her black pantyhose should have been wool and denim jeans, but she just had to look professional like her momma by wearing a skirt. Not that her momma was any sort of professional right now, her dad acting like he’s got to prove himself to some white man again…
“Help would be great.” Chloe wraps up her books in the blanket and presses the bundle close to her chest. “Thanks.” She turns around.
And finds another Chloe staring right back at her: a black girl tall enough to make small white boys nervous. Hair speckled white with snow like her Aunt Tic’s. Headband’s askew. Hat made in home ec. Navy wool coat rescued from a Sear’s discard bin by her father, carefully repaired by her mother. Her classmates didn’t act like they knew, but Chloe could feel her mother’s stitches itch on her skin, scraping her up, marking her as cheap, unworthy
Get outta our school
You don’t belong here
Nothing but a low-life n—
“Still can’t get over these windows.” Sumac towered over Chloe, the frozen locks of his hair brushing snow off his own shoulders and onto hers. He had their only two suitcases–Chloe’s dad must be working on getting her mom out of the car. “Every time I drive here, I think another car’s playing chicken with me.”
“Are all the windows like this?” Chloe took a step back to take in the Crow’s Nest.
Two bright lamps stood upon either side of a massive door etched with…something. The snow stuck to much of it, but Chloe could see curves and grooves in the way the snow was shaded by the lamps. No light could be seen in any of the dozen windows staring down at her: not on the first floor, second floor, or attic. Only the flickering reflections of the door’s lamps and snow, like muted static on a television.
The roof itself was steep and lined with little spears–all but the center, where a circular shape remained blurred and secret in the night snow. The house itself was all large red bricks and cement, complete with cement scrolling rails up the wide, icy stairs to the front door.
The opening front door.
Even from the bottom of the stairs, Chloe could feel a wave of warmth spilling down the stairs. There was light, normal light inside, and what looked like carpets, and a staircase, and then a man’s shape. A man with combed black hair, narrow eyes, glasses, sweater. He staggered onto the front step, gaping at Chloe. “Angela?” With a jump he was off the stairs and in the snow, arms so tight around Chloe she lost her breath.
Word Count: 643 Total Count: 3270
Hmmm. I’m feeling like Chloe’s a bit too passive for own good these past few scenes, but then again, the current circumstances are out of her control. I’ll try to make her more active in the scenes ahead.
Like what you see so far? I’ve got books to share with you, too! Click here to learn more about my YA Fantasy novel, my serial fantasy on Channillo, and my fantasy western novella.