I received this book for free from the Author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Sinister Grin Press on September 19 2015
Genres: Adult, Horror
Buy on Amazon
The nitty-gritty: A disturbing and violent glimpse into a notorious historical figure, a dash of the supernatural, and a compelling story. For fans of shock horror, this is a must read.
I’m always cautious when someone asks me to read a book from a small publisher I’ve never heard of, but when Lesley Conner asked me to read her new novel from Sinister Grin Press, I didn’t have to think twice. I’ve known Lesley for several years through her work as an editor at Apex Books, and I’ve even read one of her short stories, which was included in an Apex anthology. I was impressed with the professional-looking book cover of The Weight of Chains, one of my personal tests that a book from an unknown publisher has to pass before I’ll even think about reading it. Lesley warned me, however, that “…it is graphic and extremely violent, and the story does involve children.” Well, it’s hard to scare me off a book, and her words only made me curious. Lesley is so nice! She looks so normal! What horrors could she possibly write about that would make me uncomfortable?
Well, plenty, it turns out. Conner has taken the story of the infamous Gilles de Rais, who was the real-life inspiration for the tale of Bluebeard, and written a horror story around his legend. Gilles de Rais had a thing for young boys, and by “a thing” I do not mean he wanted to buy them a puppy. The story takes place in the French village of Machecoul in the early part of the fifteenth century, where Gilles de Rais lives in a castle and is master to the families who live on his land. Jeanetta and her family have just moved there and must work the fields in order to survive. It’s a terribly hard life, food is scarce, and Jeanetta and her brothers are always hungry. But they believe that the lord of the castle, Monsieur de Rais, is a generous and kind man who will protect them.
Little do they know that de Rais has a very unsavory and murderous hobby. He orders his servant Poitou to bring young boys to the castle for his pleasure, boys who never return to their homes. Jeanetta has heard rumors in town about all the boys in the village who have gone missing, but she refuses to believe them.
When a wizard is brought to the castle and forced to raise a demon who will be able to make Gilles de Rais a rich man, Gilles’ carefully constructed secret life begins to falter. But will it be too late for Jeanetta and the other children of the village?
I want to start this review by saying how much I loved the historical aspects of this story. Conner describes the hardships of peasant life in that era so well, that I could almost feel the dirt under my fingernails. Life is harsh and cruel, and children, especially girls, don’t have any freedoms and can expect nothing more in life than to eventually marry and raise their own children, toil on their own land, repeating the cycle. I was fascinated by the descriptions of their day-to-day life, and I rejoiced when Jeanetta is given a sliver of free time to go into the village and meet other children her age.
But simmering just below the surface of this seemingly normal existence is the threat of something unknown. Conner really knows how to build tension slowly, as the atrocities of Gilles de Rais are revealed little by little. I thought the pacing of her story was excellent, as she jumps back and forth between Gilles and his castle full of horrors, and the normal day-to-day struggles of Jeanetta. It’s only when the two begin to come together that the reader realizes that no one in this story is safe.
The characters are varied and each one brings something crucial to the story. Of course, the monster of this tale is Gilles de Rais, however, he’s not the only one. His trusty servant Poitou has dark desires of his own, and even Prelati the wizard will do whatever he must to stay alive. Gilles’ cook Colette, a woman who has lived in the castle for years and has a son of her own, was one of the more tragic characters, in my opinion. Colette does her part to help Gilles with his voracious and horrific appetites, and even though she knows what she’s doing is wrong, she’s been duped into thinking that as long as she stays in the castle and behaves, her son Laurent will be safe. (Do you remember what I said up there about no one being safe? Uh huh.)
Then there is Jeanetta, a wonderfully brave young girl who finds she has an unexpected strength when she really needs it. I loved her character the most, as she goes from a docile child who does what she’s told, to a fierce, kick-ass girl who takes on some of the worst characters in the story.
I can’t review this book without mentioning the extreme graphic violence and frankly, very upsetting scenes that take place in the castle. I won’t go into detail, but if you’re particularly squeamish about descriptions of dead and decaying bodies, then I’d stay away from this book if I were you. The fact that The Weight of Chains is based on the factual life of Gilles de Rais makes it even harder to read in parts. Even worse, the crimes he committed were against young children, and no matter who you are, it should be hard for you to read those sections.
Luckily, there is a supernatural element to this story, which takes it out of true crime territory and forces it back into fantasy. The events near the end of the book, while horrific, make this a perfect horror story for the Halloween season. And believe it or not, there is a glimmer of hope at the end. Conner leaves the reader feeling wrung out, but gives us just a glimpse of future happiness for at least one of the characters.
I doubt I’ll ever re-read The Weight of Chains, but I’m so happy to see that Lesley Conner has a solid and well-written published story under her belt. For true horror aficionados, this book will horrify you in the best possible way.
Big thanks to the author for supplying a review copy.