(2022) David Towsey, Ad Astra – Head of Zeus, £18.99, hardback, 323pp, ISBN 978-1-801-10164-6
This intriguing if bleak fantasy novel by David Towsey turns on the premise that everyone has two distinctive daytime and night-time selves. Occupying the same body, one lives while the other dreams. Each persona may be a stranger to the other, with different professions, other partners, even entirely separate lives.
Take Equinox’s protagonist(s): by night Christophor Morden serves as a royal inquisitor-cum-detective in the somewhat Eastern European-flavoured kingdom of Reikova, rooting out supernatural evil despite having a touch of magic himself.
By contrast, his ‘day-brother’ Alexsander is a jobbing musician and full-time bohemian. Pragmatically, they manage their co-existence by ignoring the other as much as possible unless one of Christophor’s cases requires otherwise.
High concept summary: one’s a witch-hunter; the other’s a layabout: together, they fight crime. So, when Christophor is leant on by the powers that be to investigate a gruesome case of occult mutilation in a city prison, his enquiries lead him (and so Alexsander too) to the remote frontier village of Drekenford . There he finds himself increasingly out of his depth looking for the witch responsible.
Meanwhile Aleksander, motivated as much by new personal entanglements in the village as by loyalty to his ‘night-brother’, takes a hand in the investigation himself, taking over the narration mid-way through the novel.
Setting out its stall where dour fantasy and rural horror meet, where Equinox scores highly is atmosphere. A mood of slowly escalating dread builds as the novel progresses, fuelled by apocalyptic vignettes, uncanny happenings and the ambivalent welcome the twins receive from the villagers.
This is not grimdark – although it’s not a cheerful book. It’s gothic all the way, with bad things happening to good people (rather than bad things happening to worse people) as Christophor and Alexsandr slowly realise that Drekenford stands on a precipice of horror than could engulf the entire kingdom.
One thing it is not either – although the jacket blurb and the narrative suggest otherwise – is a fantasy police procedural. Yes, some of the usual tropes are present, and Christophor is the secondary world fantasy equivalent of the middle-aged world-weary ‘one more case before retirement’ detective inspector. But Equinox’s interest in mystery fiction is primarily aesthetic: there is no puzzle of substance to solve here and the conclusion, while suitably dramatic, feels a little rushed.
Readers looking for detail on a world built around the divided lives of the people within it will also be a little disappointed. Author Towsey is going for a vibe above all else and in this he succeeds. However, I can’t help thinking that a longer book could have expanded on both the investigation and the background – and gone full Gormenghast on the good village folk of Drekenford – without compromising on the overall effect.
Equinox fits a lot into a relatively slim volume and if you like your fantasy with a Gothic twist then you’ll certainly find a lot to like here, especially if you approach it predominantly as a mood piece. This is the second Towsey I have read (counting his collaborative novels as D. K. Fields) and he is certainly one to keep an eye on in the future.
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