Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest
Published: Tor Books (2005)
Series: Book 1 of the Eden Moore Series
The Book:
“Although she was orphaned at birth, Eden Moore is never alone. Three dead women watch from the shadows, bound to protect her from harm. But in the woods a gunman waits, convinced that Eden is destined to follow her wicked great-grandfather--an African magician with the power to curse the living and raise the dead.

Now Eden must decipher the secret of the ghostly trio before a new enemy more dangerous than the fanatical assassin destroys what is left of her family. She will sift through lies in a Georgian ante-bellum mansion and climb through the haunted ruins of a 19th century hospital, desperately seeking the truth that will save her beloved aunt from the curse that threatens her life.” ~from GoodReads

I’m reading Four and Twenty Blackbirds as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club.  I’ve never read anything by Cherie Priest before, so this novel, her first, seems like a great place to start. It's the first book of a series, but this Southern Gothic dark fantasy certainly stands on its own.
My Thoughts:
Cherie Priest has an impressive talent in describing scenery and generating an atmosphere.   Chattanooga is not too far off from my own home, and Priest evoked the sense of the area so clearly that it left me desperately homesick.  Whether she’s describing an ancient Georgian mansion, a sweltering swamp, or a local library, the place feels so lifelike that I can close my eyes and almost imagine I’m there.   Her skill with creating atmosphere shows in the many scenes with palpable tension and/or a strong sense of unease.  It is the manipulation of tension that seems to shift this novel more towards horror.  I’m a total coward, so I started reading only during the day after a particular scene from Eden’s youth kept me awake for a few hours one night.
The story is written in first person, but Eden’s a pretty sympathetic narrator.  She’s a physically tough, intelligent, biracial woman brimming with self-confidence.  While she does occasionally come off as a little too arrogant and unfeeling, I always got the sense that Eden-the-narrator uncomfortably acknowledges that she’s being a bit of a jerk.  Besides, I think her emotional shell is probably a pretty realistic development for a biracial girl growing up in the South.  Overall, Eden is a strong heroine whose personality makes the story even more engaging.
While the scenery, atmosphere, and characters are pretty awesome, I had a few minor complaints with the way the story unfolded.  Though I enjoyed learning more about Eden through the short stories from her childhood that opened the novel, they seemed almost beside the point in the context of the overall story.  I felt like many of those scenes could have been removed completely without altering the structure of the story at all.   As a result, the story seemed to wander aimlessly from short story to short story until Eden grew up and the main plot kicked in.  The childhood scenes were certainly well written and entertaining, but I wish they’d been more relevant to the rest of the book.
After the main mystery of the novel got started, I was a little bothered by how easy everything seemed.  For instance, Eden wants to find someone who doesn’t want to be found, so she looks her up in a phone book.  The first and only name Eden finds is the woman she’s seeking, and it even gives her address.  I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to vanish, I’d go unlisted.  At the very least, I wouldn’t list my address.  In the same way, basically every action Eden takes leads her closer to the resolution of the mystery.  She never seems to make any false steps, even when she’s just acting on a whim.  To its credit, though, the central mystery was pretty complicated and required a fair bit of unraveling, even with Eden’s amazing luck. 
There were a few other little things throughout the book that I found slightly annoying.  For example, the story seems to be set in 2005, but Eden doesn’t use cell phones or the Internet.  It’s implied later on that Eden’s kind of anti-technology, but the lack of modern gadgets really gave the book a 1990s feel to me.  Also, the villainous characters seemed a bit more cookie-cutter than I would have liked.  There was a homicidal religious fanatic that just wouldn’t die, a racist old rich lady, and a supernatural main villain that was pretty much pure evil.  The fanatic and the racist were somewhat more developed as characters than the evil magician, who I wish could have been a little less of a standard villain.
My Rating: 4/5
Altogether, Four and Twenty Blackbirds shaped up to be an entertaining book, and it establishes Cherie Priest in my mind as a writer whose work I will most likely enjoy reading.  The strong heroine, vivid locales, and complex plot definitely outweighed my gripes about the story’s construction and the mostly-flat villains. I don’t typically read many novels that lean this close to horror.  If you're like me, I’d recommend not reading Four and Twenty Blackbirds alone in an old apartment in the middle of the night.  I am curious to see where Eden’s story will go from here, but I think I might try out one of Cherie Priest’s steampunk novels before I continue the Eden Moore series.

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