Review of The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

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This is an ambitious genre mash-up – historical noir with a vampire theme entangled in a modern day murder investigation – does Alexander manage to pull it off?

secretsoflifeanddeath1585. When Edward Kelley and his master, Dr John Dee, discover a dark secret at the heart of the Countess Elizabeth Bathory’s illness, they fear the cure will prove more terrifying than death…

2013. When Jackdaw Hammond learns of a young women found dead on a train, her body covered in arcane symbols, she must finish what Kelley and Dee started, or die trying…

This book opens conventionally – with a university lecturer in some arcane studies called in to look at the symbols drawn all over the dead body of a teenage girl found on a train. But before this contemporary plot has a chance to get going, we are yanked back to 1585 where Edward Kelley and John Dee have travelled to Transylvanian forests on a mission to help a young Countess recover from a wasting disease. Their task is hampered by the fact they are Protestants travelling in a devout Catholic country – and they are further singled out by accusations of sorcery.

The book continues with a dual narrative – the modern day story being told in the viewpoint of Jack or Felix, the university lecturer, interspersed by the torrid time Edward Kelley and John Dee have in a particularly savage corner of Europe. There has been a fashion for dual narratives recently, and when done well, it isn’t hard to see why. The author can present the reader with two apparently unrelated plotlines that eventually come together in an interesting, hopefully memorable conclusion that creates a really satisfying read. My standout dual narrative read is Katherine Webb’s A Half-Forgotten Song, see my review here.

However, if the pacing isn’t absolutely nailed – or too many readers already know of your historical characters – then readers will skim either one or other of the plotlines. Himself nearly abandoned the book, complaining that he found the historical interlude dragged too much, while in other reviews I’ve read complaints about how slowly the contemporary plot develops.

I think there is certainly a potential problem if readers already know a fair amount about Elizabeth Bathory – the plot construction and pacing assumes readers don’t. However my own knowledge was sketchy and I am a sucker for well written historical adventures, anyhow. As for the contemporary plotline – Alexander’s pacing is more leisurely than a typical urban fantasy novel, and I suspect a number of readers picked it up thinking that was what they were getting – and this book is attempting to do something else. So to some extent, both narratives are slightly compromised by reader expectation not being fully met – which isn’t necessarily Alexander’s fault.

I enjoyed the historical adventure more than the contemporary strand until about halfway through when the pace picked up and the story developed a twist I hadn’t expected. At that stage, I sat back and went along for the ride, thoroughly enjoying the experience. I won’t claim it is a unique take on the vampire story – in many ways it goes right back to the roots of the legend, but if you are not thoroughly jaded by yet another adventure, this one does have a slightly unusual angle that certainly caught my interest. And sustained it sufficiently to go immediately looking for the sequel, The Secrets of Blood and Bone.

If you like enjoyable dual narratives and are up for vampires with an intriguing take on the whole blood imbibing subject, then give this ambitious debut novel a go – I think Alexander is One To Watch.
8/10

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8 responses »

  1. lol… isnt it just?? Having said that – when you read his life story, you can see why… The man owned an obsidian mirror, for goodness sake! AND used it in arcane rites…

  2. I love dual narratives, but only when they focus on the same character’s past and present. One book that did this well was Blood Type (also a vampire novel, funnily enough) by Melissa Garrett. I don’t like switching between historical eras because one is inevitably more interesting than the other. It always ends up that way for me.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment:) It is very effective when done well, isn’t it? I haven’t come across Melissa Garrett’s book – I’ll try and get hold of it. If you enjoy dual narratives within the same timeframe – have you come across Jo Walton’s chilling alternate history Small Change trilogy? Each book is structured as a whodunit set within an England where we capitulated so Germany won… She is an extraordinary writer and I highly recommend the series.

      • That sounds incredibly interesting. Which war was it, WWI or WWII? I will definitely look into it; I really need to expand my genres anyway. Thanks for the rec!

      • It’s WWII – the books are ‘Farthing’, ‘Ha’penny’ and ‘Half a Crown’. If you haven’t also read ‘Among Others’ which won a hatful of awards a couple of years ago, I’d also highly recommend that one, too. I think she’s one of the finest spec fic writers today.

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