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Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest

Titan Books £7.99 available now

Genre readers and regular Geeklore visitors will be well familiar with Cherie Priest by now. Her Raylene Pendle vampire novels Bloodshot and Hellbent were a big hit with us and her award winning steampunk novel Boneshaker is currently being developed for the screen by Hammer. UK fans may not be aware that Priest has written another set of novels which haven’t been available over here unless you were prepared to go hunting for imports on the internet. Fortunately for us Titan have corrected that oversight and Four and Twenty Blackbirds finally gets a UK release this month. This is the opening story for magic sensitive heroine Eden Moore. Two other Eden Moore stories, Wings to the Kingdom and Not Flesh Not Feathers, will follow later on this year.

Fans expecting more of the fast paced action and wry humour of the Raylene Pendle books will be surprised to find a very different tone here. Four and Twenty Black Birds is an altogether darker and more psychologically oppressive read, reflecting what a versatile and inventive author Priest is.

We begin with Eden Moore as a young girl. She’s growing up with her Aunt Lulu and Uncle Dave in Tennessee where racial tensions and the bitter resentments of the Civil War still run strong despite the many years that have gone past. Eden’s family history is dark and mysterious and her adoptive family are keen to keep her from finding out too much. Unfortunately Eden can see the dead and she is haunted by the ghosts of three women so trying to keep her in blissful ignorance really isn’t an option. Initially it isn’t clear to the frightened young girl whether these spirits mean her harm or good but after a botched attempt on her life where the ghosts guide her to safety she comes to see them as her guardian angels. As the young Eden begins to slowly piece together fragments of information she becomes ever more determined to break the silence and unearth the truth about her extraordinary family. Questions abound. What is the significance of the names ‘Pine Breeze’ and ‘Highland Hammock’ and who was the mysterious John Gray whose name still casts a long shadow so many years after his death?

The novel’s opening section really is a tour de force of gripping horror writing. The episodes from Eden’s youth are brilliantly handled giving a full sense of a child’s fear and confusion and throwing in some genuinely disturbing and unsettling imagery that wouldn’t be out of place in the best horror movie. If you aren’t completely gripped by the time the narrative reaches Eden as an adult you probably ought to visit a hospital as there’s a good chance you’re dead. Despite the best efforts of formidable Aunt Lulu Eden sets out in her rickety little car to try find out a truth which is far more grim and dangerous than she ever imagined.

Eden is a great character. She is drawn with great sympathy and understanding which is no mean feat considering that Priest gives us snapshots of her at lots of different stages in her life. The secondary characters are equally rich and engaging and the unfolding secrets have a grim logic to them ensuring that everything remains feeling gritty and real even when the magical fantasy elements kick in.

The mood throughout is oppressive and sombre. Flashes of Eden’s dry humour help to lighten the tension but there is an inescapable feeling that she is on a journey into darkness and, though we want to know the truth as much as she does, we’re not left in any doubt that we’re going to a grim and nasty place. Priest’s locations match the mood perfectly. One early expedition to the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel crystallises the idea of relics of the past forcing themselves into the present in a motif that underscores every key event that happens in the story. This is a world where the past refuses to lie down and be forgotten, whether it is poisonous attitudes that blinker the way people think or more literal ghosts that wander the highway looking for resolution. Eden’s present needs to be reconciled with her family’s past every step of the way through murky woods, abandoned hospitals, decaying mansions and ancient swamps.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds really is an excellent book. If you already know Cherie Priest then you certainly won’t be disappointed with this. It’s different from her other work but in a very good way which shows her skill and versatility. If you’re a lover of fantasy, horror, mystery, magic and the supernatural you will find much to enjoy here. There’s also a lot to think about. On the surface this is a genuinely creepy and shocking old school ghost story but it’s also a complex exploration of self-discovery and the way people are guided and unavoidably shaped by the shadows of the past.

In short: it’s great. Buy it. Read it. Tell everybody you know about it and make sure you get the other Eden Moore books when they hit the shelves. And as film companies are already sniffing round Cherie Priest’s books keep your fingers crossed that they notice this one because Four and Twenty Black Birds would make a horror movie and a half.

David Stonehouse

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