I received this novel from Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to all of them for this opportunity.
As a fan of author Seanan McGuire, I could not let myself miss this new book that promised to be something different from her usual Urban Fantasy offerings: from GoodReads I learned that the Deadlands book series is derived from a role-playing game, and since I know nothing of the gaming world I wondered if this might have somehow prevented me from fully enjoying the story, but I should not have worried because Boneyard walks quite surely on its own legs and what’s more it’s the kind of story that draws you in and does not let you come up for air until the end. Which is hardly surprising at all, since it’s Seanan McGuire we’re talking about after all and, no matter how biased this might sound, her craft as a storyteller is such that she can draw you in and keep you there, not in spite of the darkness and the fear, but because in her hands these elements can become as mesmerizing as more light-hearted ones.
What’s more, the story’s background is set in the Wild West, in the era of bold settlers forging their way over uncharted territory to build a new life, but with the added spice of a supernatural/horror theme (and some steampunk elements as well): what could be more attractive, particularly since I read the book in the days just before Halloween? For this very reason I decided that posting this review today would be quite appropriate 🙂
The story in short: the Blackstone Family Circus faces some difficult decisions, since winter is approaching and the show has not gathered enough income with their tour to survive comfortably during the cold season, so they are debating whether to accept a potentially remunerative gig in the Oregon settlement of the Clearing, a place where some companies are rumored to have reaped good earnings while others suffered unexplainable losses. Annie Pearl is the keeper of the “oddities”, bizarre and often deadly creatures that she gathered all over the country, like the nibblers – piranha-like fish cursed with perpetual hunger and terrible teeth that jut “out at all angles, making it impossible for the fish to feed without biting themselves”: Annie has been with the circus for several years, and we soon learn that she escaped with her mute daughter Adeline from the house of her worse-than-abusive husband, and has been hiding with the circus ever since. Once the company reaches the Clearing, a bowl-like hollow surrounded by a dense, strangely looming forest, they find the settlers less than welcoming and prone to bizarre behavior, to say the least.
The very first night after their arrival, the circus people find themselves fighting fire, nightmarish predatory creatures and the hostile indifference of the townies, and it falls on Annie – desperately searching for Adeline in the treacherous woods – to uncover the Clearing’s horrible secrets while also facing the long-dreaded return of her husband Michael bent on reclaiming what he considers his properties. The main action develops over that long, horror-filled night that seems to go on forever, both for the characters and in the reader’s perception: to call this a compulsive read would indeed be the understatement of the century…
On the surface Boneyard is a story about horror and the supernatural, focused on surviving in a hostile environment that’s splendidly represented by the forest surrounding the Clearing, a place where trees seem to possess a life of their own and a malicious will, and shadows can take shape and form, pressing on the unwary travelers to sap their energy and life. Yet, on a deeper level, it’s a tale about facing one’s fears and refusing to succumb to them, about never giving in to despair to the point it might consume us: the legend of the wendigo that’s so skillfully employed here is indeed a case in point, where the hunger-stricken colonists give in to their deprivation and become the beast, devoured by a craving for flesh that can never be sated because it goes beyond the mere material plane and ends destroying one’s soul.
Annie has indeed been hiding for a long time, her sole goal that to protect Adeline: she left her home town of Deseret with literally only the clothes on her back, her infant daughter and the lynx Tranquility and we see through the artfully inserted interludes what she left behind – a man whose unwavering faith in science and in his god-given right to own her, body and soul, reveal him as a true monster. Despite her need for concealment, however, Annie has grown stronger: caring for the “oddities” in her wagon she has learned to master different kinds and levels of fear and when push comes to shove she understands that she needs to take survival into her own hands and be the aggressor so that she will not become the victim. Her example helps others find their own courage and the will to fight against the darkness: in this young Martin and his girlfriend Sophia are wonderful examples of timid people who, once faced with the prospect of annihilation, prefer to go down fighting rather than cower in fear waiting for the monsters to kill them.
The other great element of this story is the unstated but always present question about the nature of monsters and how the worst of them always start in human form: the wendigo I already quoted looks like a nightmarish beast, its appearance nothing but the outward manifestation of the shadier, more horrifying sides of our soul; the inhabitants of the Clearing have accepted the price to be paid to the flesh-eating creatures in the woods turning into willing accomplishes, even the younger among them – as shown by the kids who willfully send Adeline into the woods knowing what might find her. The worst monster however remains Michael Murphy, Annie’s husband, whose depths of depravity and madness I will refrain from describing, leaving this discovery to my fellow readers.
By comparison, the creatures that Annie shows to the paying customers, the “oddities” meant to engender fear and revulsion, end up looking like friendly beings, the danger they represent merely coming from inescapable nature and not from the exertion of a twisted will – and their contribution to the story’s development does nothing but reinforce this notion, particularly in the case of Tranquility the lynx, who deserves a special mention.
Once more Seanan McGuire reveals her skills as writer, offering us a gripping story and some unforgettable characters: no matter the tale she chooses to reveal, rest assured that it will be an amazing experience.