Book review: Magic Burns – Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars for Magic Burns (Kate Daniels #2) by Ilona Andrews.


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“Down in Atlanta, tempers – and temperatures – are about to flare…

As a mercenary who cleans up after magic gone wrong, Kate Daniels has seen her share of occupational hazards. Normally, waves of paranormal energy ebb and flow across Atlanta like a tide. But once every seven years, a flare comes, a time when magic runs rampant. Now Kate’s going to have to deal with problems on a much bigger scale: a divine one.

When Kate sets out to retrieve a set of stolen maps for the Pack, Atlanta’s paramilitary clan of shapeshifters, she quickly realizes much more at stake. During a flare, gods and goddesses can manifest – and battle for power. The stolen maps are only the opening gambit in an epic tug-of-war between two gods hoping for rebirth. And if Kate can’t stop the cataclysmic showdown, the city may not survive…”

(Read more here.)


I reviewed Magic Bites, the first book in the Kate Daniels series, in 2015. I gave it 5 out of 5 stars.

The second book in the series, Magic Burns, has a unique narrative voice that is both entertaining and engaging, and rich with personality. It also benefits from a structured and well-paced plot, memorable characters, and detailed world-building. Arguably action-heavy, with the crux of the plot hinging on a final big leagues clash, it nevertheless doesn’t scrimp on character development, or on admirably varied dialogue, as Andrews’ characters display a variety of approaches to their common language, based on experience, species and social factors, to name but a few. Additionally, while Magic Burns is rich with ever-popular biting one-liners, the novel isn’t a thoughtless supernatural romp with little to no plot, and an overabundance of sexual tension. In truth, it is the opposite, with an engaging vibrancy that it ensures that it is eminently readable.

The plot of Magic Burns hinges on the existence of “flares”, surges of magic during which modern technology is unable to function, and the unexplained and inexplicable has a tendency to pop unpredictably in and out of existence. This is more or less business as usual for the characters in this series, until these flares stop occurring in a vaguely predictable sequence, and, as well as fading in and out quickly enough to cause havoc, start building towards a destructive pinnacle.

Anything supernatural is strongly affected during the flares, strengthened both beyond reason and their normal capacity. It follows from this that those individuals that are already the strongest of their kind are rendered nigh-unbeatable. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the fallout is negative: a number of nasty individuals take the opportunity presented to consolidate their assets, and leverage a hostile relocation from one world – or plane of existence – to another. Their intentions are neither good nor honourable, and the ramifications significant.

The flares highlight the uneasy tension between technology and magic that is central to the Kate Daniels series. Instead of a vaguely functional harmony between the two, a familiar approach to urban fantasy, Andrews’ series takes place in a universe that is caught uncomfortably between them, effectively wavering on a precarious knife edge between two strong opposing forces. When magic reigns supreme, technology falters and fails, rendered obsolete. In some instances, technological devices are even permanently destroyed. When magic fades in turn, technology springs back to life. This has an impact on the characters: living (and flourishing) in that kind of environment requires the ability to adapt to a changing situation at a moment’s notice, and to develop skills that aid or at least do not actively hinder survival in a world belabored by powerful and unpredictable forces.

Characterisation in Magic Burns is equally detail-oriented. It is made clear that Andrews’ shapeshifters suffer from occupying the easy precipice between human and animal, and often struggle to restrain their toothier sides, especially during the flares. The failure to do so is widely considered to be indicative of weakness in the ‘shifter community, while the opposite is suggestive of potential leadership quality. This in turn feeds into aspects including the historical treatment and discrimination of shapeshifters, both from outsiders and other kinds of shapeshifters, and the immediate and the long-term ramifications for Magic Burns’ main characters. In bringing her characters to life, Andrews establishes a range of political, economic and social factors likely to have an impact on their lives, and introduces engaging and sympathetic themes such as found families.

The protagonist, Katie Daniels, can, at first glance, be mistakenly interpreted as a one-dimensional “strong” female character: she isn’t in a long-term relationship, she doesn’t have children, and if some nasty beastie tries to hurt her, she’ll hurt it right back, ready and willing to leave a lasting impression. However, Kate is also empathetic, supportive and loyal, and still in the process of dealing with the significant emotional impact of her last relationship. Further, her commitment to fighting the nasty things that go bump in the night is at least partially motivated by her desire to protect the vulnerable. She is by no means allergic to feelings, and her strength comes from emotional depth and compassion.

In Magic Burns, Kate comes across a vulnerable young girl whose mother is missing. Kate looks into the mother’s disappearance as well as taking the girl under her wing, going to considerable lengths to protect her from anything and everything that might wish her harm, including the girl’s own unwise and somewhat blinkered fondness for a boy. This is a true, realistic balance that reiterates Kate’s lack of practical experience without suggesting that she is too tough or emotionally isolated to care about a child left all alone in the world, or that her competency and strength equals a lack of maternal instincts.

On a different note, I don’t really enjoy urban fantasy novels of any kind that expand their repertoire to include deities, as happens in Magic BurnsIf the Next Big Threat is a worryingly powerful deity, then it seems to me that little space has been left to make the next an even bigger deal. In addition, it can only reach the point at which the relatively unprepared characters typically discover hitherto unknown super-secret superpowers, or unlock a quirk in their genetic make-up that guarantees their success in the latest manifestation of a high noon shootout – which is a bit too predictable. It works to some extent in Magic Burns, as Kate’s ongoing journey to discovering the full extent of her abilities is a strongly established plot point, but it was too obvious an ending to an otherwise exciting and intriguing narrative.

I enjoyed reading Magic Burns. Engagingly written, it has great characters, an interesting plot, and excellent world-building elements, all of which are symptomatic of a keen attention to detail, and admirable storytelling. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be predictable, and the conclusion of the novel felt inevitable. Additionally, I was disappointed by the lack of diversity in some areas – while a multitude of healthy and less-so heterosexual relationships are represented, there is little in-depth exploration of alternatives.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Book review: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

5 out of 5 stars for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.


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“One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time – from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.”

(Read more here.)


Station Eleven is an engaging novel that begins with a pandemic and ends with tenuous, uncertain survival. Its many good qualities include thorough characterisation, an intriguing plot, and the total avoidance of “strong” characters with little recogisable humanity and a plethora of unexplained skills. Often classed as sci-fi, I would hesitate to restrain it to one genre, as it is an assured and thoroughly enjoyable novel that should appeal to any reader with at least a passing interest in fiction that assesses the emotional complexity of the average human being, while presenting an equally intriguing plot. It also manages to avoid many of the stereotypes that science fiction is unfortunately prone to.

As for me, I loved it.

Throughout Station Eleven, there is a definite sense of inescapable danger, and of looming jeopardy. At the beginning, this comes from the Georgia Flu, undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the survival of Station Eleven’s characters, and later in the narrative it is the great unknown of life after the apocalypse that takes that dubious mantle. The surviving characters have little to nothing to rely on, and their experiences of a world prior to the arrival of the Georgia Flu are not much help at all. It is a fact of life for the survivors of the Georgia Flu that the changed world is profoundly unsafe, and for the reader, it is impossible not to appreciate the inherent vulnerability of Station Eleven’s characters.

This gives Station Eleven an impressive sense of realism. Intuitively, a post-apocalyptic environment is likely to be dangerous, at the very least because it is entirely unknown, a situation that no character could adequately have prepared for. With unpredictable challenges likely to be lurking around every corner, those that inhabit the changed world are placed in a difficult – and often dangerous – position.

I particularly enjoyed the way that Mandel establishes the clear difference between the characters that experienced and can remember life before the Georgia Flu, and those that cannot. The decisions made and actions taken by the first group are acknowledged to have been variously influenced by their memories and knowledge of the pre-Georgia Flu world, while the latter group call upon more recent experiences, of something and somewhere entirely different. This manifests in a range of situations,and more widely in their understanding of morality, and how they justify their behaviour.

The Georgia Flu is a powerful catalyst for Mandel’s equally powerful characterisation. Its decimation of the population brings about widespread destruction – including of the basic urban infrastructure on which many of Station Eleven’s characters are used to – and inevitably brings about irrevocable change, as a result of which ongoing survival is often uncertain at best, and the survivors left damaged if not crippled by loss. Their desperate situation often makes them unpredictable, wary of strangers and understandably hostile to the unfamiliar. The survival of each day requires, as well as skill and determination, a kind of ruthlessness that not all of Station Eleven’s characters are willing to contemplate, let alone utilise. The varying reactions to the situation and its inherent difficulties reveal the innermost foundations of each character’s personality, by establishing their strengths and weaknesses and revealing the preconceptions that ultimately give rise to their behaviour. The result is a richly detailed, in-depth characterisation.

The characters that do not endure the same tests are no less richly depicted. Station Eleven’s narrative is non-linear, and by moving back and forth in time across the lives of her characters, and between life before and after the arrival of the Georgia Flu, Mandel brings to the reader’s attention events that take place across the full span of Station Eleven’s timeline, using examples of past behaviour to clarify future events and decisions, establish the history and often-complicated nature of the relationships alluded to throughout, and to give some indication as to the likely motivational factors behind a range of actions.

My favourite characters in Station Eleven are those that comprise the Travelling Symphony, a theatrical troupe that travel to bring something more than just plain survival to the friendlier, or at least civil, communities. (Usually in the form of Shakespeare.) The manner by which the musicians identify one another primarily by instrument is a wonderful detail, and the petty disagreements that arise within the group even under – and often because of – the severe circumstances, are inarguably authentic. Station Eleven’s characters are so richly depicted and characterised that they genuinely resemble real people, lending the narrative weight and pathos.

Music and theatre are not fresh innovations brought into the post-Georgia Flu world, and “musician” and “actor” are not new, post-apocalypse occupations. A holdover from before the arrival of the Georgia Flu, the fact that they remain constantly in use despite having no practical application to immediate survival shows that Mandel’s characters retain a very human desire for more than just the basic practicalities, reiterating the lasting complexity and depth of Mandel’s characterisation, and the realism central to Station Eleven. Her characters are irrevocably changed by their experiences, but they do not become unthinking and inhuman, deprived of identifiable humanity.

One of my favourite moments in Station Eleven is when Clark is told that his client is “sleepwalking”. Due to a range of factors, he has found himself in a particular occupation, one that he has come to realise that he doesn’t much care for. But while he might be interested in taking a different path, his responsibilities ensure that he considers taking a risk by leaving his stable career to be out of the question. Thus, dissatisfied, he works mechanically, with neither interest or passion. He sleepwalks. This is one of my favourite moments because it is so realistic, a state of affairs that many of us can relate to, and because it emphasises the often-painful relationship between dreams and reality in the novel as a whole. A world in which an infectious disease swiftly turns into an unstoppable pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the population is not a world of happy endings, or a world in which dreams come true.

These are just a few of the many reasons why I enjoyed reading Station Eleven, and why I would definitely recommend it, even to readers who wouldn’t normally try anything like this. It has many excellent qualities, and on top of an engaging, well-structured and nicely-paced plot, it is insightful and empathetic, exploring the often-unpleasant depths and incongruities of the human condition in a manner that is assured and not without sympathy, and that contributes to, rather than detracting from, the plot. With an emphasis on character, it takes a refreshingly human-centric approach to its premise.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Book review: Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

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“Without this child, we shall all die.” Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her own world…”

(Read more here.)


Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the first book in the series entitled His Dark Materials, is about a young girl named Lyra Belacqua. A ward of Jordan College, she knows the parameters of her world well, and spends her time almost entirely as she wishes, acquiescing only rarely and very reluctantly to the instructions conferred upon her by a variety of well-meaning if usually distracted authority figures. When children go missing, however, plucked uncaringly from their lives, Lyra’s world changes. Finding herself too close to comfort to those responsible, her principles – and loyalty to her best friend, Roger – demand action.

When I first read Northern Lights, I was enchanted. The plot, the characters, the setting, and the number and nature of the ideas lending weight and coherency to the entirety were a veritable feast for the imagination, and the novel had admirable depth and undeniable quality. I was hooked from the very first page, and held spellbound until the very last.

That is to say: Northern Lights trounced even the greatest of my expectations.

A quietly undisclosed number of years later, a re-read has proven that Northern Lights is just as enjoyable, and just as relevant in its approach and themes now as it was when I was first fortunate enough to read it. Readers of all ages continue to love and devour it, and such wide and lasting appeal should not – and cannot – be underestimated.

Northern Lights isn’t needlessly complex or disappointingly simple. It is clever and accessible, never condescends to younger readers, and postulates the concepts that form the foundation of the narrative in an understandable and engaging fashion. Aiding comprehension is the fact that they are presented to the reader in intuitive terms by the protagonist, Lyra, and the rich, logical details are easily enough to satisfy even the most discerning mind. Lyra’s youth and refreshingly direct approach make her an ideal character to shepherd readers through Pullman’s world, and the possibility of thorough engagement with the protagonist’s perspective encourages an immersive experience.

Thematically, Northern Lights has broad scope, from the representation and perception of children, and of youthful characters, to the ramifications of pursuing unchartered waters and unprecedented, live-changing, discoveries. The protagonist, Lyra, proves to be a useful vehicle in the exploration of such topics, for her practical, no-nonsense approach and unflappable sense of fairness cast the inconsistencies and uncertainties behind popular assumptions into sharp relief, and she regularly challenges groundless prejudices. An obvious example is the moment in which Lyra played a pivotal role in liberating Iorek from his captors – while many of the other characters were hesitant to take a stand, or concerned by his ferocity, Lyra just saw a brave, proud, misunderstood creature that had been treated with needless cruelty, and knew that she had to offer what assistance she could.

Importantly, Northern Lights isn’t a feel-good romp. While it is definitely a tale of adventure and grand exploits, helmed by a young, heroic protagonist, it is also poignant and sensitive, moderating victory and achievement with prevailing loss and realistic complexity. The destruction wrought upon the lives of the unfortunate children cruelly experimented upon is undeniable, and while Lyra succeeds in liberating them from the facility in which they were being held, the damage cannot be reversed. Further, she ultimately delivers her best friend, Roger, into the greedy clutches of Lord Asriel, as a result of which he tragically perishes.

Roger’s death is an important plot point, propelling Lyra into a startling new world, freshly determined to pursue and fight for her beliefs, and to discover more of what she was so ignominiously introduced to. It also provides evidence for the maturity of Pullman’s approach to a narrative primarily populated by youthful characters, as difficult scenes are neither sugar-coated beyond all recognition nor needlessly, starkly harsh. The vulnerability of children – especially to adults – is recognised, but so is their strength and their tenacity, within realistic bounds.

It would be remiss of me, even foolish, to conclude a discussion on the merits of Northern Lights without reference to “daemons”. From the experiments conducted by the Oblation Board into the possibility of separating children from their daemons, to the armoured bear wishing to obtain one so that he might become human, “daemons” are foregrounded in Northern Lights, presenting an important aspect of the narrative, and an interesting addition to the development of the characters. A daemon is the physical manifestation of the human soul, visible in the form of an animal, and they vary in accordance with the person with which they are linked, changing constantly throughout childhood, and settling upon a final form during puberty. Assumptions can be made about personality and mood from a daemon, and there are strict, unspoken rules against touching that of another person. Pullman’s development of his characters involves establishing their daemons, and as such it is an exciting and inspiring addition to a narrative already rich in detail. Their inclusion remains a unique and impressive concept when considered in the wider context of fantasy novels.

Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a clever, imaginative novel, filled to the brim with intriguing ideas and many details capable of engaging and inspiring readers of many ages. The language is, on occasion, plain, but never tedious, and lacks neither detail nor rich description. Pullman’s world building is arguably my favourite aspect, but everything from the structure of the plot to the variety of the characters is enjoyable. As such, I am happy to give Northern Lights 5 out of 5 stars.

Top reads of 2016

It was long and emotional, but the 2016 book year (that is, the most important kind of year) is now a thing of the much loved past. All that remains is the opportunity to reflect, and, of course, to make plans for 2017, however cautious and however loosely defined. Whether this involves committing to a new and improved reading goal, adding several exciting new titles to your ever-increasing TBR pile, or resorting to making your beverage of choice so that you might stave off the responsibility of compiling a 2017 reading list for just a little longer, change is upon us.

I pledged to read a grand total of 50 books in 2016, a goal that I later decided, while languishing painfully in the midst of a particularly long novel, had been innocently meant, but ludicrously ambitious. As it was, however, despite the occasional moment of uncertainty, through a startlingly beneficial combination of delayed train journeys and no small amount of stubborn commitment, I reached my goal, reading a wonderful 51 books.

Are you proud? I’m proud.

I enjoyed many of the books that my greedy little hands alighted upon, regretted my interest in a couple, and even abandoned some, too profoundly unimpressed to read any further. To my considerable surprise, I delved into more than one classic of my own free will – something of a novelty after my lengthy stint studying English Literature – rediscovered my love of sci-fi/fantasy, and even took the occasional cautious sojourn into the realm of non-fiction, buoyed by a similar compilation of Terry Pratchett’s work.

I did, naturally, have favourites. Some were unexpected – penned by authors I had not previously discovered, or structured in a manner that I do not usually find enjoyable – and others were familiar titles taken from the shelf for a comfortable re-read. They were as varied as they were numerous, and in attempting to pick my top read of 2016, I, well. Let’s just say that I struggled. A little.

(By that I mean: a lot.)

So I decided to pick a top ten, from which I could derive a winner. They are as follows (in order of consumption):

  1. The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan
  2. Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
  3. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
  4. The Vagrant by Peter Newman
  5. Treachery by S. J. Parris
  6. Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon
  7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  8. The Trees by Ali Shaw
  9. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  10. Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

From this list, I decided, with some solemnity, that my top read of 2016 had to be a book that was particularly memorable, and that I thought was genuinely incredible. It didn’t need to have won any awards, but it had to have a quality or aspect that more than adequately distinguished it from the rest, and that rendered it an appropriate occupier of the pedestal on which it would remain for the entirety of 2017. The ten titles listed above were considered at length.

Finally (drum roll please), I decided that my top read of 2016 had to be China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.

Perdido Street Station is an incredible novel. From the profound diversity of the characters to the vivid grittiness of the landscape, it is well written, expertly crafted, and brilliantly portrayed. The imagery seethes with life, the prose is astonishing, and each chapter is more intense than the last, encouraging feelings of suspense, compassion and even heartbreak with undeniable skill. It is impossible to pretend at indifference when reading Perdido Street Station, and the novel is so richly detailed and so wonderfully immersive that there would be little value in even attempting to.

I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough.

Read more in my review here.

As for 2017, I do not yet know where my interests will take me, or what books I am likely to enjoy above all others. I do know, however, that my TBR pile contains the sequel to Perdido Street Station (which I clutched lovingly for some time), and that 2017 has the potential to be a fantastic book year.

I will always be grateful for the authors that make this possible, and whose work continues to inspire and delight.

Which book did you most enjoy reading in 2016?


Check out my most recent review here.

Bookish round-up: December

Books read: 4

  • Skin and Bone (Cragg and Fidelis Mystery #4) by Robin Blake
    Genres: Mystery, crime
    Rating: 3/5
  • Wideacre (Wideacre #1) by Philippa Gregory
    Genre: Historical fiction
    Rating: 4/5

Favourite read:

Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre

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“Beatrice Lacey, as strong-minded as she is beautiful, refuses to conform to the social customs of her time.

Destined to lose her family name and beloved Wideacre estate once she is wed, Beatrice will use any means necessary to protect her ancestral heritage. Seduction, betrayal, even murder – Beatrice’s passion is without apology or conscience. ‘She is a Lacey of Wideacre,’ her father warns, ‘and whatever she does, however she behaves, will always be fitting.’ Yet even as Beatrice’s scheming seems about to yield her dream, she is haunted by the one living person who knows the extent of her plans…and her capacity for evil. Sumptuously set in Georgian England, Wideacre is intensely gripping, rich in texture, and full of colour and authenticity. It is a saga as irresistible in its singular magic as its heroine.”

Read more from the source here.


Check out my most recent review here.

Bookish round-up: November

Books read: 3

  • Airman by Eoin Colfer
    Genre: YA, adventure, fantasy/sci-fi
    Rating: 5/5
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
    Genre: Classics
    Rating: 4/5

Favourite read:

Eoin Colfer’s Airman

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Clever, nuanced, and sensitive, Eoin Colfer’s Airman is comprised of vastly adventurous and undoubtedly dashing exploits, and profoundly serious, sad moments.With depth, surety, and an ending riveted with delightful ingenuity, this novel can and will delight in a variety of ways.

Book Review: Dear Amy – Helen Callaghan

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My relationship with crime fiction, at one time both congenial and seemingly long-lasting, has suffered. We used to be very close (to the unutterable dismay of my presiding bank account), but, more recently, I decided that the characters are frequently too predictable, the details of the plot all too easy to anticipate and rarely well depicted, and, finally, in more general terms, that crime fiction is a genre that yields too fully and too regularly to tedious habit, and, subsequently, that it is one that I wanted very little to do with.

In short: I was considering divorce.

Although Dear Amy falls firmly into this bracket, it sounded both intriguing and unusual, a more creative contribution to a genre occasionally guilty of stagnancy. Having read the synopsis, I decided that even if it did ultimately prove to suffer the aforementioned weaknesses, reading it would be, at worst, a brief return to a genre that is in possession of many glorious attributes, but that no longer meets my expectations. A throwback, if you will.

Drum roll please.

I genuinely enjoyed it. Helen Callaghan’s Dear Amy is well written, nicely structured, and cleverly paced, and could quite justifiably be provided with an admirable position on even the most highly regarded (and likely heaped) bookshelf. A startlingly compulsive read, it is assured and mature, neither circumventing in-depth explorations of the emotionally fraught scenes that feature in the narrative, nor avoiding delving into the painful and often far-reaching ramifications of the multitude of base cruelties that give rise to them. A suspenseful, gripping story, it is delivered with both delicacy and sensitivity.

(To paraphrase: I liked the thing.)

Dear Amy’s protagonist is Margot Lewis, a teacher and newspaper agony aunt. Her life is more or less predictable, aside from the unpleasantness of an impending separation from her husband, until she receives a strange letter addressed to ‘Amy,’ claiming to have been written by a victim of a kidnapping that took place many years ago. Margot initially assumes it to be a hoax made in spectacularly bad taste, but as more letters arrive, each more intense and desperate than the last, she is unable to dismiss them as meaningless. The possibility of a connection between the letters and a more recent disappearance is too important to disregard.

The answers that Margot finds, however, take a form she never expected, and the consequences for her own life are unutterably and decidedly severe. A vast, jagged hole is torn in her small, more or less predictable world, and emerging unscathed and unchanged from the ordeal proves to be impossible. With time running short and lives at stake, Margot struggles not to lose all sense of herself as everything she values and understands is thrown into painful confusion, and the actions she is obliged to take waver helplessly into dubious moral ground. Dear Amy‘s narrative is rife with deep, dark secrets and the darker predilections that give rise to them, and Margot cannot remain detached.

However, while the characters are realistic, often admitting to uncertainty and never devoid of weaknesses, Dear Amy is, unfortunately, comprised of rather too many gratuitous crime fiction stereotypes, to which the aforementioned moral uncertainty is an obvious example. Margot is easily identifiable as the tortured hero, replete with a tragic past and an absent family. These are familiar details, and lack originality.

Further, the novel begins with the conclusion of Margot’s marriage and ends with a burgeoning romance, a subplot that arguably offers little that is particularly original to the plot. It felt unnecessary and a little bit ridiculous, for the plot would have worked equally well in its absence, and while its inclusion was perhaps indicative of Margot’s eventual success and renewed certainty, I felt it detracted from the evocative imagery of Margot’s solitary struggle. Thematically, Dear Amy focuses on Margot’s journey, and the hard, uphill climb to the hidden truth. With the inclusion of the male romantic lead, her arc loses strength, for it is no longer herself that she depends on. This is again a familiar aspect of crime fiction, in which the protagonist is often paired off.

Fortunately, Callaghan’s prose offers no small remedy. Descriptive and intense, Dear Amy is vivid and immersive, and stacked high with explosive imagery and intense language. Some crime fiction novels suffer from a sparse style and a bland setting, given only some measure of life by the details of the plot and the driving force of the protagonist’s often-abrasive personality. Dear Amy is the opposite, powerfully written and expertly structured, with every aspect encouraging engagement and exciting suspense. The characters are realistic and varied, and her plot unusually structured.

I enjoyed the language, the imagery, and the broad strokes of the plot. I thought the concept was original and nicely crafted, and that it was suspenseful without being crass. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be too predictable, the romantic subplot uncomfortable at best, and the constant adherence to crime fiction stereotypes neither laudable nor unique. Finally, while Margot was an interesting and undeniably sympathetic character, she was too isolated, and very difficult to relate to.

(Maybe it’s a character flaw. Maybe it’s – never mind.)

Helen Callaghan is a brand new voice in the crime fiction world with an impressive turn of phrase and a brilliantly creative outlook on a genre that often suffers from descriptive brevity. Unfortunately, Dear Amy suffers from a number of predominant weaknesses alongside its many strengths, and as such, despite finding the plot genuinely riveting, I could only give it 3 out of 5 stars.