A DOWRY OF BLOOD (A Dowry of Blood #1), by S. T. Gibson

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Vampire lore states that these creatures can mesmerize their victims, leaving them powerless to resist the lure of their captor: well, like a vampire, this book managed to mesmerize me from start to finish, making it almost impossible for me to put it down – I lost count of the number of times I told myself “just one more chapter, then I’ll stop”, only to keep reading on…

The vampire myth is one of my favorite themes in horror, so once I learned that A Dowry of Blood focused on a retelling of the story of Dracula and his brides it was a given that I would read it, but what I found was a very unexpected tale told in an equally unexpected narrative style, which added to my enjoyment of the book.  The narrator is Constanta, one of the famous vampire’s brides as she relates her story in an impassioned letter to her sire who, as we learn from the very first sentence in the book, she killed in an act that she describes as possessing “its own sort of inevitability”.

Constanta’s first encounter with the creature who will change her existence happens outside a Romanian village devastated by a brutal attack: she lies dying on the ground, images of her family’s massacre mixing with the awareness of her imminent demise, when this fascinating stranger makes her an offer that seems like salvation but which will lead her on a very unpredictable path. Her beginnings as the vampire’s bride flow in a mix of fascination and discovery that appear all the more extraordinary given Constanta’s origin as a poor peasant girl, but as time elapses it becomes increasingly clear that her husband/master’s outer veneer of charm hides a volatile, domineering disposition that becomes even more marked when their “family” comes to include the presence of Magdalena, a beautiful Spanish heiress, and later on of young Alexi, a penniless Russian actor.

More than being another story about vampires, A Dowry of Blood represents the deconstruction of their myth as it shows the other side of the coin represented by the fascinating lure of an immortal predator: here Dracula (even though his name is never actually mentioned) comes across as an abusive despot, a creature of fickle disposition, easily angered and possessed of a mean streak.   At first Constanta accepts it all as part and parcel of her new life, never having had the opportunity for a comparison – either in her previous life or in her new, immortal one – and living as she does in almost total isolation with her sire.  Things however change when Magdalena joins their “family”: the transition from jealousy to attraction to complicity allows Constanta to put her existence into perspective and to observe their lord’s treatment of his brides from an equidistant position, therefore bringing to light his manipulative and control-oriented tactics.  The situation worsens when starving actor Alexi is brought into their midsts, his lust for life and human companionship undiminished by the changes in his body: the younger man’s desire to keep a foot in both worlds – the living and the undead – takes the vampire lord’s stranglehold on his “family” to new heights, ultimately laying the foundations for his (untimely?) end.

Even though I’m usually not very comfortable with allegories, I can view this novel as one about toxic relationships –  and who better than a blood-sucking vampire to epitomize the draining of agency, self-worth and freedom caused by an abusive spouse?   Constanta is the classic example of the naive woman who finds herself married to a control freak who does everything in his power to establish his authority on her, either cutting off any chance of outside contact, or constantly belittling her, or both, in what she labels as “the cycle of brutality and tenderness” than informs their relationship.  She is only an extension of himself, something he created for his own ends, not for her benefit:

[…] I don’t think you ever truly saw me as a whole woman. I was always a student. A project. An accessory in the legal and decorative sense.

In the end, the mistake of the vampire lord comes from the choice to increase his entourage, because instead of adding more “accessories” to his dominion he unwittingly lays the basis for a found family: the strength of the bonds that unite Constanta, Magdalena and Alexi is what ultimately allows them to see their sire for what he truly is, and to find the courage to sever the ties linking them to him and to regain their freedom.  What finally struck me, once I finished the book, was the realization that in never using her husband’s name in the story (only hinting at his true identity in an oblique reference to the “troublesome Harkers”) Constanta took back the agency she was robbed of for so many centuries: in denying him his identity, his name, she exacted the perfect kind of vengeance against the constant theft of power and self-determination he visited on his brides.

I described A Dowry of Blood as a mesmerizing book, and the greatest part of such effect comes from the narrative style and the almost lyrical prose that took hold of my imagination and created a rich, three-dimensional picture of these characters and their surroundings: there is a gothic flavor to this story that nevertheless does not lapse into purple prose, blending the quaint and the modern into a seamless whole. If, like it seems, this is only the first volume in a saga, I more than look forward to what the author has in store for us in the next books…

My Rating:


BLACK MOUTH, by Ronald Malfi

Black Mouth turned up to be one of my most intense reading experiences for this year, one I once again owe to my fellow bloggers who showcased a book I might otherwise have missed out on.  The story is something of a familiar one (I will get back to that in a moment) but it’s portrayed through such a depth of exploration of the human mind and soul that it defies any attempt at comparison.

Jamie Warren – and his mentally impaired brother Dennis – Mia Tomasina and Clay Willis, marginalized children in a small West Virginia town, were the victims of traumatic events which shaped their adult lives. As the story starts Jamie, who turned into an alcoholic incapable of holding a job for long, is called back to his home town after the death of his mother, to take responsibility for his brother Dennis whose disability makes him incapable of being on his own. Different reasons have compelled both Mia – who is now an indie film director – and Clay – a dedicated social worker – to go back as well, and as the three reunite we get to know, through a series of flashbacks, about their childhood lives and of the terrible events that marked them forever after the encounter with the mysterious and creepy Magician.

While the premise might lead us to compare this novel with Stephen King’s IT (and it is indeed marketed this way, in what I believe is an involuntary disservice to Ronald Malfi’s work) Black Mouth easily holds its narrative own: for starters, it’s far more streamlined, lacking the kind of buildup that often makes King’s books feel somewhat bloated, and it plunges its readers directly into the heart of the matter, turning this immediacy into one of its main strengths.  And then there is the skillful handling of difficult topics like cognitive impairment, childhood abuse, substance addiction: none of these delicate themes is used as a “shock factor” but rather as a way of building the characters’ psychological profile in a compelling, sympathy-inspiring way.

The horror elements are dealt with in the same light-handed fashion, creating an atmosphere that is more disturbing than truly terrifying, starting with the titular Black Mouth which is an area on the outskirts of town where a coal mine collapse created both a local tragedy and a legend of eerie happenings that turned the site into one to be avoided at all costs. The true horror, however, comes from the very mundane suffering of the characters, whose childhood was scarred in equal parts by injury and neglect, and by their peers’ cruelty, turning them into the perfect victims for the Magician’s lure and his dark goals.  Mia was an orphan, taken in by a distracted and disinterested uncle, the loss of her parents turning into a sort of obsession for death she later channeled into her movies; Clay’s life as black boy in a Southern small town was made even more difficult by the vitiligo which bleached his face and hands, turning him into a target for local bullies. And Jamie suffered the constant abuse of a violent, drunken father who here represents the kind of evil that needs no supernatural elements to turn vicious and even deadly.

Jamie is indeed the main narrative voice (the author lets him tell the story in first person, while the other POVs are told in third person) and a very complex personality whose trauma and psychological wounds are revealed in small increments: I have to admit I was quite leery of him at first because he wrongly came across as the kind of whiny, weak individual who never takes responsibility for his actions, but once a window opened on his past and the kind of ordeals he had to endure, I understood where the drunkenness and wasted life-style came from, and my initial scorn turned into pity – and sympathy.  Moreover, from the very beginning Jamie’s one redeeming quality is the way he cares for his brother Dennis, with deep affection and a strong sense of protection that not even the years of separation have been able to weaken, and that strenghtend my emotional ties with his character.

Dennis literally stole my heart, and I have to praise Ronald Malfi for the tactful, respectful way he portrayed him, without ever sliding into saccharine-laden affectation: there is a kind of otherworldly wisdom in Dennis that proves quite fascinating and becomes, as the story progresses, one of its pivotal elements.  Mia and Clay don’t enjoy such a detailed portrayal as the two brothers, but still their personalities come across quite vividly, particularly in the way they choose to battle the inner demons from their past: Mia by turning the darkness into inspiration for her movies, and Clay by dedicating his life to troubled youths, as a way of exorcising his own demons.

And here lies the counterpoint with the evil that marked their lives, embodied by the character of Wayne Stull whose early life had been equally marred by cruelty and pain: whatever pity I might have harbored for him, however, as I witnessed his horrific childhood, was erased by the way he reacted to life’s unfairness, by turning into a monster himself and taking out on the innocent the rage and pain of his miserable existence, where instead Mia and Clay sublimated that pain through creativity or service to others, or Jamie internalized it by drowning it in alcohol.

Black Mouth is a truly compelling tale of atmospheric horror, granted, but it’s also a story about friendship and the kind of bonds forged in adversity that survive the test of time; it’s a story of violated innocence and of the struggles one faces to escape the dark prison of those experiences (and I guess that the comparison with the collapsed mine is not far-fetched at all…); it’s an often haunting tale of the search for new beginnings and the hope that accompanies it. And even though I have not yet forgiven the author for the unexpected character death that I can rationally acknowledge but still left me emotionally wounded, I’m certain that this will not be the only book I will read from his plentiful production.

My Rating:


WHAT MOVES THE DEAD, by T. Kingfisher

It was only a few weeks ago when I reviewed T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone, and here I am with another of her books, one that confirmed my intention of adding as many of them as possible to my TBR, because she is an amazing storyteller indeed.

I knew, thanks to my fellow bloggers’ reviews, that What Moves the Dead would take me on a gothic horror journey – and more specifically a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of House of Usher – and I was also made aware that the terror elements would be expressed in some wildly ghastly way, thanks to the cover illustration with its gruesome implications of body horror. Still, I found much more than I bargained for, because the dreadful elements are quite successfully blended with a peculiar brand of tongue-in-cheek humor that I’ve come to suspect might be T. Kingfisher’s trademark.

Alex Easton, the first-person narrator, is a non-binary former soldier who has been summoned by Madeline Usher, an old friend living with her twin brother (who used to be Easton’s comrade in arms) in a dilapidated house on the shores of a sinister-looking lake. According to the letter she sent to Easton, her health is failing and she also mentions her brother’s fears that she might be dying: worried for the sake of both friends, Easton comes to the mansion, where they are met by the siblings who appear aged beyond their years, emaciated and quite mentally troubled.  The dark, decrepit house and its environs fare no better than the Ushers: where inside one can see dust, cobwebs and peeling wallpaper, on the outside the lake’s waters appear unusually still and coated with something of an oily film which at night sports a weird luminescence. And creepier still, the local fauna – particularly the hares – shows unusual behavioral patterns, while strange fungal growths seem to thrive on the ground as far as the eye can see.

Worried for the plight of the almost-unrecognizable childhood friends, Easton tries to enroll the help of Denton, an American doctor also living at the manor, and of Miss Potter, a dedicated mycologist and illustrator, to try and understand what might be affecting the siblings and Madeline in particular, whose night-time cataleptic wanderings always take her to the lake’s shores. Unfortunately, events move rapidly toward tragedy, as a nameless menace hovers above the collapsing house of the Ushers…

While Poe’s tale might have been the inspiration for this novella, T. Kingfisher imbues it with its unique sense of dread and impending doom, enhanced by the villagers’ dire warnings and by the clues that the author seeds along the path to lead her readers toward the conclusion: I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story, so I will keep any hint to a minimum – suffice it to say that other novels, some recent, some less so, have used that same narrative element but, in my opinion, not as successfully as Kingfisher did here.  There is a disturbing escalation of clues in What Moves the Dead that makes the horror palpable, rendering it so very easy to put oneself in Easton’s shoes as they walk through the crumbling rooms or fear for the Ushers’ failing physical and mental health at the same time as the former soldier tries to unravel the mystery of the house and its nearby lake.

Still, the story is not totally oriented toward gothic horror, because the author inserts a welcome vein of whimsical humor that takes some weight out of the narrative and offers a welcome respite: in my previous encounter with Nettle and Bone I enjoyed this element and I was glad to find it again here.  For starters, Easton is a delightfully no-nonsense, self-deprecating character who is hardly prone to flights of fancy, and therefore the right person to investigate the strange happenings of the house without being unduly affected by them: there is an interesting digression about the custom of Gallacia – Easton’s country of origin – whose linguistic flexibility extends to pronouns, which are assigned on the basis of situation rather than gender, so that for example a sworn soldier like Easton is referred to with the pronouns of ka and kan. This detour, together with some fun references to Gallacian propensity toward turnips, or to spoiling its national liquor with the addition of lichen, helps keep the overall tone from becoming too dreary even as the story progresses toward its dramatic climax.

The supporting characters, much as it also happened in Nettle and Bone, are explored with equal care and serve as a solid counterpoint to the main roles: Miss Potter, the spirited mycologist and naturalistic illustrator, is a delightful figure imbued with an indomitable spirit and a pointed view of the male-dominated scientific world, while Easton’s longtime footman Angus is there to offer his grouchy advice (whether one wants it or not…) and a steadfast support in times of trouble. And this review would not be complete without a special mention of Hob, Easton’s horse who, while not gifted with speech, is nonetheless able to comment on various situations in its own horsey way, delightfully reminding me of the demon-infested chicken from my first Kingfisher read. I now wonder if her other novels will sport more opinionated animal companions, because that’s an addition I enjoyed very much.

What Moves the Dead turned out to be another extremely engaging read and the confirmation that I just discovered a new-to-me author whose books I intend to explore as much as my overcrowded TBR will allow…

My Rating:



When I started reading The House Across the Lake I was already aware that this mystery/thriller contained a huge, supernatural twist thanks to the review of fellow blogger Mogsy who had showcased this book previously, so when it happened (and Mogsy’s comparison to Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was indeed spot-on) I was not surprised, nor put off, but still I would like to warn potential readers who don’t enjoy the addition of the uncanny to their thrillers that this kind of element is there.

The story focuses on Casey Fletcher, a former actress whose career floundered after the tragic death of her husband: she’s now a grief-stricken alcoholic who stopped caring long ago about the media frenzy over her drunken public appearances.  Casey’s mother sent her to the family’s lake-house in Vermont to keep her out of the media’s voracious eye, and with the not-so-high hope of sobering her up, but unfortunately the choice of location is the wrong one since Len, Casey’s husband, drowned in the same lake on whose shore the house stands, so that heartbreak and loneliness are driving Casey to drink practically nonstop from morning to night.

Something however breaks that self-destructive routine when one day Casey spots someone in danger of drowning in the lake: taking to her boat, she’s able to save the person, only to discover that it’s Katherine Royce, a famous former model and her neighbor on the other side of the lake, where the woman lives with her husband Tom in a new house whose big glass windows seem to invite a peek into the life of the rich and famous Royces.  And that’s exactly what Casey starts to do, pointing her binoculars at the Royces’ house and seeing that apparently her neighbors’ marriage is not the modern fairy-tale told by the tabloids; so, when Katherine suddenly disappears, Casey becomes convinced that Tom must have killed her, and she launches into an alcohol-fueled, often messy crusade to uncover the truth. Only to discover that appearances can be very, very misleading….

It’s going to be very difficult to write about this book while steering away from spoilers, particularly where that famous narrative twist is concerned, but what I can and will share are the reasons why this book proved quite disappointing – and certainly not for the supernatural element: being aware that it would be there made me look forward to it, curious about what it would be, and it turned out to be an intriguing one indeed, even though it came with little or no foreshadowing, unless one takes into account a passing mention that might very well have been overlooked.  No, what disappointed me were the characters and their actions, which often made little or no sense, and a feeling of… narrative flimsiness – for want of a better definition – that employed some well-known tropes without trying to invest them with some much needed uniqueness.

Casey takes of course the role of unreliable narrator (and toward the end we will discover just how unreliable…), but she is also an unsympathetic character I could not drive myself to care about: we are told that she’s grieving for the death of her husband, and we see her trying to drown that grief in the bottle, but I never truly felt her pain. If her alcohol-induced fugue state was a way of expressing that sorrow, I’m afraid it did not work for me; what’s worse, at some point we learn about a certain dramatic revelation from the past, and Casey’s harsh choice in dealing with it, but I’m afraid that the too-short time frame from discovery to action made the whole sequence totally unbelievable, because there was simply no time for her to truly process that momentous epiphany. I apologize if this sounds cryptic, but to do otherwise would lead to spoilers…

The other characters fare no better, from the potential victim’s husband’s suspicious attitude, to the avuncular protectiveness of the older neighbor, to the appearance of an attractive neighbor/caretaker who might be a romantic interest, they are barely sketched figures that left no lasting impression and serve only as a sort of foil for Casey’s reckless and ill-advised choices.   I held some hope once the true villain of the story was revealed – and here I have to acknowledge that the author managed to work some very successful red herrings here in the narrative transitions between the “before” and “now” of the various chapters – but the exchanges with Casey destroyed that hope because instead of the hoped-for dramatic effect they bordered on the grotesquely outlandish and robbed those scenes of the required emotional impact.

As I said the weird element in the novel was an intriguing one, and being a fan of horror themes I did not find it objectionable, even though it might have been introduced a little more organically: what I find hard to accept is that the… phenomenon, let’s call it that way, did not manifest itself sooner and lay in wait for a very long time before coming to the surface, considering that there were many opportunities for that to happen before Casey’s arrival on site.  And as a last complaint, I must add that once the main story seems to have reached its climatic end, we are treated to a second dramatic revelation, which not only steals the wind from the main ending, but adds what I felt was a ludicrous note by having a second baddie threaten Casey – I kid you not – with a five thousand dollars bottle of wine. If this sounds as insane as it is unbelievable, it’s because it IS.

In the end, I’ve come to view The House Across the Lake as a bundle of missed opportunities that turned what was a potentially intriguing story into an alcohol-soaked mess. From what I’ve seen online, this does not seem to be the author’s best offering, but still I’m not exactly encouraged to explore further….

My Rating: