Cherie Priest,
Four & Twenty Blackbirds
(Marietta, 2003; Tor, 2005)

Cherie Priest caught my eye only recently. But once she got it -- with Boneshaker, a 19th-century American twist on a steampunk theme, followed closely by Clementine, a semi-sequel cross-country adventure tale -- she made me want more. And, since she just can't write fast enough to sate my desire, I had no choice but to go back to the beginning.

For Priest, the beginning is Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a southern gothic story that is quite a different animal than her later work.

The novel focuses on Eden Moore, who begins the book as a precocious youngster and ends it as an independent young woman. Eden lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., and she sees ghosts. In particular, she sees three sisters, possibly ancestors, who lurk at the edge of her vision and occasionally pipe in with warnings to save her from danger.

But those aren't the only ghosts she sees, as an eerie encounter at a summer camp and a much later event at an abandoned hospital will demonstrate.

Now, someone -- a cousin, actually -- is trying to kill her, and learning the reason why might save more lives than Eden's. Solving the mystery, however, requires Eden to wade deeply through her own family history, as well as a fetid Florida swamp, and she won't like everything she learns.

As first books go, Priest produced a winner. Although I ended the book not sure how well I really knew Eden -- and not entirely sure how much I liked her -- I was fully absorbed from beginning to end as she sorted through the tangled mess of her family tree. She proves to be a resourceful girl, perhaps braver than she ought to be -- I kept thinking she didn't take her cousin's threat quite seriously enough -- and her story is steeped in a distinctly southern ambiance.

The narrative bogs down a time or two along the way, but the story is compelling enough to pull you over the rough patches. Your skin will crawl while reading this one -- and not just because you can feel the mosquitoes on your arms, the heavy air in your lungs and the hungry eyes of a gator on your back as you walk.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Tom Knapp

4 September 2010

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