“The snow diminished, but in its stead came a malicious little wind that drew claws across the back of his neck.”
Often when I start reading a book, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. But once in a while, I am surprised, and Something Red was one of the biggest and best reading surprises I’ve had in a long time. Nicholas is a master storyteller and has the rare skill of being able gradually build a sense of dread and terror in such a way that it virtually sneaks up on the reader. This is a rather quiet story that relies not on big action scenes, but on an irresistible mix of wonderful characters and carefully constructed moments that add up to an amazing reading experience.
Set in thirteenth century England during an especially nasty winter, Molly and her band of friends are trying to cross a mountain pass with their wagons ahead of the impending heavy snows. Molly is an Irish woman of indeterminate age who brews potions and is able to communicate with crows. Her traveling companions are granddaughter Nemain (pronounced “Nevan”), a young girl in her teens who helps Molly make her concoctions and is able to sense danger; Jack, Molly’s lover and protector, a mysterious and silent man who is not able to speak but is a strong and passionate defender; and Hob, Molly’s thirteen-year-old apprentice whose main job is caring for the ox that pulls Molly’s wagon. The story is told in third person mostly from Hob’s point of view and takes place in a monastery, an inn, and a castle, as the troupe battles their way from place to place in the terrible winter snows that are gradually getting worse. As they make their way through the dark and snowy woods between each location, the feeling that something is stalking them is keenly felt by everyone in the troupe. And when the danger becomes real and horribly mutilated bodies begin to turn up, Molly and Jack come up with a dangerous plan to save those who are still alive.
The lilting Irish brogue of the characters was hard to get used to at first, but once I caught on to the rhythm and beauty of the language, I couldn’t imagine this book being written any other way. Nicholas is a poet, and his love of language shines through in every sentence. His descriptions, especially those involving the senses, are so vivid that I imagined I could feel the biting cold of the snow and even smell the coppery scent of blood. Although this is a fantasy, the fantastical elements are subtle, lying just beneath the surface of the story, waiting to jump out when you least expect them. I also loved the historical authenticity that Nicholas brings to the book, as he scatters words like “escaffignons” and “cotehardie” throughout the story.
Although I loved everything about this book, my favorite part of Something Red was the characters. Despite the unseen horror that is stalking them through the forest, there is a certain charm to the story that’s hard to explain, but I’m sure the characters have a lot to do with it. Molly, the leader of the group, has an almost mythic quality about her. She’s a woman who can seemingly do anything (throw knives, win at chess, heal the dying), and although she is a grandmother and is described as having gray hair, I never pictured her as an older woman. Her granddaughter Nemain, who just happens to be in love with Hob, is a mystery as well. Nicholas describes her in his typical poetic fashion: “Her silence was that of one who carries gold in a secret purse, hoping not to be noticed.” Fiercely devoted to Molly, Jack is a larger-than-life character with an intriguing back story that eventually emerges later in the book, and also explains why he is mute. Not only does he defend Molly, Nemain and Hob against the various dangers they encounter, but the author injects a touch of bawdiness into the story when describing his prowess in bed.
But of all the characters, I loved Hob the most. At its core, this is a coming-of-age story, and Hob goes through many changes before emerging a man at the end. One of his most endearing features is his love for Milo the ox, who also loves him back and will do anything Hob asks of him. Any coming-of-age story worth its salt wouldn’t be complete without first love, and Nicholas makes sure Hob experiences love and desire for the first time, but in a controlled and subtle way. Like the looming horrors in the snow, Hob’s awareness of his desire seems to grow alongside the terror, as he experiences the pain and confusion of first love.
Eventually Molly and her troupe are able to put a name to the evil and confront it, in a wonderfully surprising way. Nicholas brings in several shady characters later in the story who could be responsible for the horrific killings, but he keeps the reader guessing almost to the end. In the final pages as Hob makes the transition from child to adult, the snow begins to melt and winter turns to spring. I had goose bumps as I read the final page and longed to know that thing all writers want their readers to feel at the end of a story: What Happens Next.
Many thanks to the publisher (Atria/Emily Bestler Books) for a review copy. Something Red comes out tomorrow, September 18th. You can purchase it here.