(2014) Rebecca Alexander, Del Rey, £16.99, hrdbk, 394pp, ISBN 978-0-091-95327-0
This novel makes an interesting counterpart to Kate Mossse's The Taxidermist's Daughter (Orion, 2014). Both have female protagonists and are centred on isolated houses in rural England, both place great emphasis on the presence and habits of birds, both have a trail of bodies and a secret which must be concealed – by the villains of The Taxidermist's Daughter and from the villains of The Secrets of Blood and Bone. Both sets of villains are English, the former wealthy businessmen and the latter even more wealthy aristocrats. And much of The Secrets of Blood and Bone takes place in Venice, while the events of The Taxidermist's Daughter occur in the watery setting of an imagined flood in Fishguard.
However, although The Taxidermist's Daughter begins as if it is to have a supernatural theme, the action thereafter is centred in the everyday world. The secret to be concealed is a rape and supposed murder perpetrated by the local equivalent of the Hell-Fire Club, and the subsequent murder of a witness attracts the attention of the police with commendable speed and efficiency. The first victim in Alexander's novel is a witch who has been murdered in the search for the secret of immortality, which has been inherited by a mother and daughter who are both on the run after causing the death of the immortal Elizabeth Bathory in a previous book. The mother is a reluctant vampyre and the daughter a nascent witch, both damaged by their previous experiences and needing magical aid to survive. Fortunately the house has formidable defences, animating plant life, animals and birds to destroy intruders – there is a dead one in the garden who is not discovered until well on in the action. But although there are references to the difficulty of building a new life in the intrusive circumstances of the modern world, it really is not clear how they manage to avoid the attentions of the many officials who have, to quote Richard Stilgoe, 'a statutory right of entry to your home'. And even if we assume the usual fantasy/horror convention that Nobody Will Believe What's Going On Up There, it is not easy to believe that the inhabitants of the Big House could maintain a Wild Hunt for long before the equivalents of Morse and Lewis turned up to investigate.
That such things might go on in and around 16th century Venice is easier to believe, and in alternating chapters the novel follows the misfortunes of Edward Kelley, assistant to John Dee, who comes to the city seeking the secret for the ancestors of the aristocratic villains, and finds a great deal of trouble, not least from the Countess Bathory who is in residence and very much alive, or at least undead. For me at least, these Venetian chapters were a great deal more interesting and more confidently written – the on-off love story of the 21st century heroine (confusingly called Jack, short for Jackdaw) and the man whose blood she has tasted and now craves, while he swans off to a brief fling in California, seemed to belong more to Mills & Boon than to 'a gripping supernatural thriller that bridges time, legend and the power of blood'.
Checking online, I have found that many of the comments on the previous novel, The Secrets of Life and Death, are complaints about the split time-line - some preferring the historical track, some the modern fantasy, and comparatively few liking both. Yet the first book has made Rebecca Alexander runner-up for two literary awards, and The Independent on Sunday calls her 'an author to watch'. It will be interesting to see whether the historical side or the modern fantasy wins out in future novels, or whether they achieve a more satisfying balance.
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