Breathless and Speaks the Nightbird

I just finished Dean Koontz' Breathless, which was weirdly disappointing. The story wasn't bad and the characters were interesting but the whole thing felt rushed and the ending was terrible. The “science” is even worse than the ending. Or maybe it's about eighty percent of what's wrong with the ending.

As I probably mentioned before I have been reading a bunch of books by Dean Koontz, Stephen King and Robert R. McCammon, partly to compare and to contrast and partly because I was in the mood for horror/thrillers. The book I read this week by Mr. McCammon was very different from Mr. Koontz' novel. Called Speaks the Nightbird, the book is set in 1699 and follows the adventures of a young man called Matthew, who is a magistrate's clerk. As the novel begins he is on his way to a place called Fount Royal to help his employer with a witch trial.

In order to understand the mindset of the characters we need to be able to see the world as people of the time did, or at least have an idea of what was important, sacred or profane. Mr. McCammon does a fine job with world-building and background, or at least it's good enough to fool me, a non history major. (That's right, I majored in non history.) The book is long, especially for what is essentially a mystery story, but it is so engaging it never feels like too much. (Unless you already sprained your wrist holding a Stephen King opus and your arm hurts from holding this new book. Nightbird is so big that the paperback version is broken into two books.)

The Salem Witch Trials have caused a sensation and Magistrate Woodward has his doubts about the outcome. He is determined to give the alleged witch a fair trial, despite pressure from the bigwig of the town. Rachel Howarth, the accused woman, has been in gaol for months, a stinking, filthy place where she has no protection from the townspeople. When Matthew sees her for the first time her calmness, strength of character and beauty capture him and he becomes determined to solve the mystery of the supernatural events surrounding her. But the magistrate, who has been struck down with a ferocious illness, fears that Matthew is enchanted and in danger of losing his soul.

Tensions in the little town run very high. Residents are terrified of evil influences and are desperate to hang Rachel. Matthew is torn between his filial feelings for the magistrate and his burgeoning feelings for Rachel. His strong curiosity and need to solve Fount mysteries vie with his desires to obey the laws and do his job properly. (For instance if Rachel is found guilty he will have to read her death sentence to her.) He also has to beware because if he is seen sympathizing with her the townspeople will say that she has enchanted her and will be at risk of being executed also.

The novel is loaded with interesting characters, many of them completely self motivated. One woman is out to make every penny she can from the presumed execution, planning to sell cakes and pies during the actual event and hopes for keepsakes like Rachel's hair that she can sell to future curiosity seekers. If you're trying to figure out whodunit you might end up suspecting everyone. There is more going on in Fount Royal than accusations of witchcraft; gold coins and other expensive items are turning up in the bellies of turtles and two men have been murdered. (Murders blamed on the supposed witch of course.)

Speaks the Nightbird is a gorgeous story that unwinds at a slow and steady pace, giving the reader time to savor the story and soak in the atmosphere of the time and place in which it is set. You can read an excerpt here: I would skip the blurb at the top of the page as it's a bit spoilery.

Breathless on the hand had a good pace for the first 250 pages or so, then suddenly accelerated and finished everything up much too quickly. There are several protagonists whose stories we follow, in a braided story fashion, with the assumption that somehow they will all meet and everything will become clear. I realized as I drew near the ending that each character only had about fifty pages each to tell their story. As a result most of the book felt like act one, where we set the stage, meet our characters and discover their motivations.

Add in the weird anti science stuff at the end and the book is frustrating. Which is too bad, as it has an intriguing beginning. Two mysterious, cuddly and smart animals appear in a meadow and follow a man and his wolfhound home. At the same time animals in the vicinity act odd, including a large group of abused golden retrievers, some horses and even a duck. Add a mathematician who gives away his poker winnings, a murderer, a man with a damaged face and even more damaged psyche on a mysterious mission and you have something that will hook the reader. But you can't just start telling a story and then make the reader feel like it ended because the courier from the publisher was tapping her toes waiting to pick up the manuscript. You can read an excerpt here:

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a poem called Icarus, about the motivations and thoughts of Icarus as he took his fatal flight. By Wendy A. Shaffer, this poem ran in Strange Horizons.