The Hawley Book of the Dead: Frustrating

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan fantasy book reviewsThe Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

The Hawley Book of the Dead is a debut novel by Chrysler Szarlan, a bookseller from Massachusetts. It follows the story of Revelation Dyer, a Las Vegas stage magician with a real magical talent: the ability to disappear. At the beginning of the story, she accidentally kills her husband, shooting him on stage in a Bullet Catch illusion that goes wrong. Once Reve realizes that the murder was no accident but planned by a mysterious person targeting her and her family, she moves with her three daughters to Massachusetts, her home state. The Dyer women settle in Hawley Five Corners, a small abandoned town connected with Reve’s family’s history. She begins to puzzle out the entangled mysteries behind her murderous stalker, her family’s secretive past, and her own unfolding magical powers.

Doesn’t that sound awesome? Even as I write out the summary, I get excited again for such a cool premise. An abandoned New England town? A family’s secret history, held in a magical book? Murder on the Las Vegas stage? Unfortunately, the execution didn’t work for me. I found myself constantly frustrated by this book, even as I kept reading to find out the end.

I’ll start with what worked. The beginning is great. “On the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.” As a hook, that is excellent and evocative. I was generally impressed with Szarlan’s prose. It was clean, simple, unornamented, with moments of poetic illumination. It felt literary, which is a style I favor in fantasy.

And the setting Szarlan describes is marvelous. Hawley Five Corners was abandoned in the twenties, but many of the houses and buildings have somehow remained untouched by time. As a girl, Reve and her childhood best friend, Jolon, used to ride their horses through the woods to explore it. Now, living there, Reve is surrounded by eerie coincidences and suspicious neighbors who mistrust anyone living within the bounds of the abandoned town.

However, The Hawley Book of the Dead does not balance all of its plot elements very well. Not only is there Reve’s on-going story in the foreground, but there is also a shadowy magician whose connection with the Dyer family is not thoroughly explained or wrapped up.  But he’s too heavily referenced to really be background material. Furthermore, as motivation for Reve’s murderous stalker, Szarlan adds another story of an underground government bunker where magical creatures are tested and tortured. Szarlan plans to write a series, which is great. She obviously has plenty of material for it. However, this first book may not have been the place to explore all of these storylines. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of seeding in plot elements early for foreshadowing. But a writer has to strike a balance between what is foreground material and what is background. Szarlan’s balance was off, and so the disparate plot elements ended up competing with each other instead of supporting the main plot.

I also didn’t think all of the plot elements in the main plot were necessary. Why was the family secret, about their magical ability, kept a secret from Reve at all? [Here’s a spoiler: highlight if you want to read it] The grandmother, Nan, eventually tells her the whole story, which also clears up the mystery of the abandoned town. But the reason Reve didn’t grow up knowing this is that Nan had put a spell on her daughter, Reve’s mother, to keep her from talking about it. Why? No real reason is given. And Reve’s dad is not under the spell, so he can talk about the family secret all he wants. I guess Nan just trusts him? [end spoiler] Needless to say, this explanation is unfulfilling and too easy to poke holes in. It seemed like a shoehorned solution to a story problem that didn’t really need to exist in the first place. After all, watching Reve’s daughters learn about the family magic for the first time would have been just as fulfilling as watching Reve learn about it.

Finally, I felt very unconnected to Reve. Her grief at her husband’s death was glossed over too often; ultimately, she felt wooden. Later on, [Another spoiler] when two of her daughter are kidnapped, [end spoiler] she turns into a caricature of desperation, with too much whining to be likeable. We are supposed to be impressed with her fortitude, but instead she lashes out at everyone around her, blaming them for not fixing the problem.

Some of the marketing that accompanies this book compares it to the recent Deborah Harkness books. On Goodreads, there are lots of outraged commenters saying what a travesty the comparison is, how Harkness is a goddess and Szarlan could never reach her lofty level of literary accomplishment. But, honestly? I found them about the same: frustrating reads with confusing, overpacked plots and unlikeable, unconvincing characters, and yet, somehow, just enough underlying mystery and fascination to keep me coming back for more.

Publication Date: September 23, 2014. For fans of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and A Discovery of Witches comes a brilliantly imagined debut novel brimming with rich history, suspense, and magic. Revelation “Reve” Dyer grew up with her grandmother’s family stories, stretching back centuries to Reve’s ancestors, who founded the town of Hawley Five Corners, Massachusetts. Their history is steeped in secrets, for few outsiders know that an ancient magic runs in the Dyer women’s blood, and that Reve is a magician whose powers are all too real. Reve and her husband are world-famous Las Vegas illusionists. They have three lovely young daughters, a beautiful home, and what seems like a charmed life. But Reve’s world is shattered when an intruder alters her trick pistol and she accidentally shoots and kills her beloved husband onstage. Fearing for her daughters’ lives, Reve flees with them to the place she has always felt safest—an antiquated farmhouse in the forest of Hawley Five Corners, where the magic of her ancestors reigns, and her oldest friend—and first love—is the town’s chief of police. Here, in the forest, with its undeniable air of enchantment, Reve hopes she and her girls will be protected. Delving into the past for answers, Reve is drawn deeper into her family’s legends. What she discovers is The Hawley Book of the Dead, an ancient leather-bound journal holding mysterious mythic power. As she pieces together the truth behind the book, Reve will have to shield herself and her daughters against an uncertain, increasingly dangerous fate. For soon it becomes clear that the stranger who upended Reve’s life in Las Vegas has followed her to Hawley—and that she has something he desperately wants. Brimming with rich history, suspense, and magic, The Hawley Book of the Dead is a brilliantly imagined debut novel from a riveting new voice.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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6 comments

  1. I am crushed! I read your summary and was going, “Oh, my gosh!” Then I checked the number of stars. What a disappointment!

    • Maybe you’ll like it more than I did, Marion? I’d be interested to hear another perspective from someone whose opinion I trust. Most of the people on Goodreads who DID like it also compared it (favorably) to Harkness, which is not a good sign in my book.

      • Don’t even get me started on Harkness…. that’s enough to warn me away from this book. Thanks, Kate!

        • I actually loved the novel. It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. If you are into a packed mystery which includes magic, you will love this book. I ensure everyone who reads this review to still give the novel a shot with an open mind. One person’s cup of tea may not be for others. Reviews are great but if you are looking to try it out, I’d say do it without the compromise of one person’s opinion

          • meant to say i assure everyone who reads this review to give the novel a shot. as it is a great read. the story line is captivating and the characters are like-able

  2. Ditto Harkness.

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