by T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Nightfire
Publication Date: July 12, 2022
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
From the award-winning author of The Twisted Ones comes a gripping and atmospheric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's classic "The Fall of the House of Usher."
When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.
What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.
Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.
The last T. Kingfisher book I read (The Hollow Places) made me terrified of willow trees and school buses, and now this one made me terrified of rabbits (technically hares, but, ya know). Which is to say, this is another astoundingly imaginative work. While it’s certainly not necessary, I’d recommend reading Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” before this as it’s based on that short story. It gives you a great appreciation for how the author changed (I’d say improved) the story. As a side note, Alex is Gallacian. Their language has a lot more pronouns than English (or Ruravian), including one for soldiers (ka/kan) that Alex has elected to keep using even after retirement. In terms of making this more readable while still respecting them, I’ve chosen to use the nonbinary they/them in this review.
Alex is a retired soldier who served with Roderick Usher, and after receiving a disturbing letter from his sister Madeline, they travel to the Usher house in Ruravia in hopes of helping their childhood friends. It’s even worse than they expected: the house is a crumbling pile, the countryside is strangely unnerving, and both Roderick and Madeleine are almost unrecognizably wasted away. But that’s just scratching the surface of the horror that awaits Alex…
“I’m not, for the most part, an imaginative soul. Put me in the most haunted house in Europe for a night, and I shall sleep soundly and wake in the morning with a good appetite.”
I am a humongous fan of T. Kingfisher’s writing, so it’s no surprise that I was drawn in from the first pages. Told from Alex’s first person POV, the novella starts with them arriving at the house and bumping into an English mycologist, Eugenia Potter (yes, related to that Potter), whose knowledge of particularly odiferous mushrooms doesn’t do much to endear the countryside to Alex. Discovering the state of their friends and their residence is also a huge shock. But Alex is gamely determined to do something to help, even if it’s just to keep them company and try to raise their spirits.
“You know I’m not a superstitious soul, Angus, but I swear there’s something wicked here.”
“Well, I am a superstitious soul,” said Angus, “and I know there is. It ain’t canny. The sort of place you find devils dancing on the moors.”
“There aren’t any moors. There’s a sort of heath and a tarn and a mad Englishwoman painting mushrooms.”
The characters are exceptional, and Alex’s way of categorizing them – much like Miss Potter categorizes her fungi – is insightful and hilarious. Beyond Roderick and Madeline, Denton, an American doctor (of sorts) who’s already tried and failed to help Madeline, is also staying at the house and joining Alex is their batman Angus. The interplay between Alex and Angus was especially entertaining while also serving to give Alex a trusted person to puzzle out how not right everything is.
“Both Denton and I knew the truth, but saying the words would make it real, and dear God, how I wanted it not to be real.”
The book is exactly as gothic as you’d expect, but in traditional T. Kingfisher style, it’s got plenty of humor and “oh @#$@ no” moments skillfully woven throughout. There were points – especially once the creeping realization of what’s happening starts to settle on both Alex and the reader – that I was reading through my fingers, both absolutely horrified but unable to stop reading. The way the bits and pieces of the story start to come together was just *chef’s kiss*, and it all ratchets the tension up perfectly.
Overall, yet another book that hits it out of the park. Imaginative and spine-chilling in all the best ways, and highly recommended for anyone looking for a quick frightening read to cool down with!
Content notes: View Spoiler »