Tag Archives: dual narrative

Review of The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander


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.


Review of The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb


Any regular visitors to this blog will know that I am a real Katherine Webb fan – read my review of The Legacy here and my review of the hauntingly beautiful A Half-Forgotten Song here.

Bath 1821. Rachel Crofton escapes her unhappy employment as a governess by marrying a self-made businessman. But her new lifethe misbegotten soon takes an unexpected turn. Reclusive Jonathan Alleyn is a man tormented by the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Alice. Starling, foundling child and now servant, is convinced that Alice, the woman she loved as a sister, was stolen from her. Did Alice run away? Or did something altogether more sinister occur?

As with the other two books, this is a dual narrative. Rachel, through the autumn and winter of 1821, is coping with being newly married and being back in Bath, though in far reduced circumstances from when she was there as a child and young woman. Starling’s account starts in 1803, when she is taken in by kind-hearted Alice, whose sudden disappearance not only wrecks her own life – but tips Jonathan Alleyn, teetering on the edge of post-traumatic stress after his horrific experiences during the Peninsula War into a complete mental breakdown.

There are four main characters – Rachel and Starling, who are the protagonists and we see the story unfold through their viewpoints, in addition there is also Alice, the missing girl. Many believe she absconded with a secret lover, but Starling is grimly convinced that something else happened to her – and has been battling to get to the bottom of her fate, working as a servant in the household where she believes Alice’s murderer lives. And the other character who largely features, is Jonathan, a half-mad invalid, who has been shut up in his mother’s house since his return from the War.

As ever, Webb’s attention to detail and her recreation of the historical backdrop to this mystery is pin-sharp and perfect. We can smell and taste 19th century Bath, particularly the walk Rachel is forced to take from her own humble dwelling through the streets to the place of her new employment, or to the shabby tenement where her father-in-law resides… Again, as we’ve come to expect from Webb, the story is layered with secrets and mystery so that almost from the moment I picked it up, it was difficult to put down again.

Rachel and Starling both make strong protagonists – both clever, determined and courageous. I liked them both, although Starling steadily grew on me as the book progressed and I increasingly understood her bitterness. In addition to the main characters, there are also a number of other memorable, well drawn individuals whose story is drawn into the mystery. But the one who sings off the page for me, is Alice, the missing girl. I felt I knew what had happened to her by two-thirds through the book – until I discovered that I didn’t… Webb certainly knows how to create twists.

One of the issues that comes very clearly through the book, is what a grim time it is to be a woman. Once married, all your property belonged to your husband and if you were wronged in any way, justice was chancy and often too late. It isn’t a great time to be poor or elderly and infirm, either. The ending is completely satisfactory and once more, Webb has taken me on a rich, action-packed journey which I am profoundly glad to have taken. While this book doesn’t quite have the magical feel of A Half-Forgotten Song, which for me is one of the most memorable and outstanding reads, ever, this doesn’t mean it is anything other than a really good book and one I highly recommend.