Book Review: The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

3 1/2 (out of 5): Well worth reading.

A reminder that I almost never give out a “5.”

This first appeared on my Tobin Loshento blog, in 2015.

This novel reminded me a bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is a good historical/fantasy/magical realism book also.

First, I would say that this was much better than I would have guessed from reading the back cover blurb. Usually these capture the essence, but this really did not.

The protagonist is Jackdaw “Jack” Hammond and she is “almost” dead. She has cheated death with the help of a woman and they both help other people (all whom seem to be women) who are about to die. Now someone is hunting Jack and other almost dead. Check out the back cover synopsis if you want more synopsis like details.

Ms. Alexander’s writing is generally well done. From a craft perspective I found the two stories–one in the past loosely based on history and one in present day–not done the way I would have liked. The present is the more compelling story.  The past (1585) is an interesting back story of the researcher and assistant who dig up and document the secrets of life and death, so to speak. It also has the hints as to who is hunting Jack. My issue is that this does not need to be told as a full fledged second novel within the novel. It is a bit of a MFA thing/style (and I say that given my own MFA, but feeling there is some justification to the critique that MFAs tend to churn out similar thinking people–albeit that may be more true in the U.S. than England).

The historical piece bothered me also in the subtle way that the atrocities of the church and inquisition were portrayed–almost a glossing over. I felt this was important given that the modern day story has the church and inquisitor in the story still. The author is making an effort to make sure that the antagonists are not cookie cutter good and bad, but the effort is incomplete–especially given the final scenes (which I will avoid giving away).

The basic idea and plot I really like. There are people who die early, but are not 100% fated to die and one can use “magic” or something resembling that to halt it. There is a bit of the occult here, but I like the blurring of this line. Alexander makes sure that this is not 100% devil/evil/occult.

The male protagonist, professor Felix Guichard is a bit of an idiot and I found myself almost wishing Jack would not end up with him. Given the church aspect it is not shown why Felix buys some of the rhetoric that the inquisitor spews forth. A historian (which is what he is supposed to be) should be very skeptical of the church and its motives. I am talking about the political institution, not blasting religion per se. Still, this is within the area of not all protagonists are pure good, nor perfect. The novel has both Jack’s POV and Felix’s. I found Jack’s more honest and compelling.

I would have loved to have dropped most of the POV of the historical piece (present it via other means) and replace it with some fleshing out of Jack’s mentor and the ambiguity of her motives, which I think were great: what will a mother do to save a daughter and ends justifying means. In this case the end being both Jack’s life and the baby her blood saves.

There is an arc for Jack, which I think is important in any character driven novel. She learns and grows.

Ms. Alexander’s work illustrates that for fantasy there continues to be some very interesting work coming out of England and I hope the U.S. audiences and publishers enjoy it enough to change their habits.

I look forward to new work from Rebecca Alexander. This is a strong debut novel and most writers improve over time.

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