I was wary of all the extravagantly glowing reviews I saw on Goodreads for Something Red (which I received from the publisher through Netgalley, thank you to them). In many cases it’s simply a sign that the author has a lot of cooperative friends. I’m happy to report that this is not the case here.
I was dismayed by the formatting of the ARC on my Kindle; it was a mess. The decorative elements of the text, while very nice, played harry with the reader program, and it took persistence just to get from one chapter to the next. However – well, two things. First, I pushed through despite the issues; I have been known to quit a book because of excessive formatting problems (there are just too many in queue to waste time on something that fights me), but this time I wanted to read this book. What’s wonderful about this is (the second thing): I made a comment on Goodreads when I started – and the author got in touch with me for more details to pass on to the publishers to fix it. Which they did. Mostly. Except that new problems cropped up. But I’m sure the final product will be sorted. This book deserves a beautiful format (which, Mr. Nicholas tells me, is exactly what the hardcover is – I look forward to seeing it).
I keep trying to think of other books to compare this to, and I’m finding it difficult. Maybe that’s why I’ve had trouble writing a review for it. It’s a sneaky book. What could be very dull, traveling through forest in the winter, is turned into a small masterpiece of suspense as the travelers – Molly, a temporarily dispossessed Irish queen and her tiny caravan of an ox, a mule, two carts, and three of her kin, adopted and blood – pick their way through the coldest winter in living memory to trade and heal and maintain the bonds. The tribulations of journeying on muddy roads through a freezing and vast forest are detailed without every becoming tedious – and part of the beautiful way this is accomplished is through the boy Hob, whose perspective is used, and his relationship with the animals who pull their wagons. The ox and mule are given personalities better than a good number of human characters I’ve encountered in lesser books. And those basic difficulties of travel begin to pale next to the fear that suddenly comes one evening as they draw near a monastery where they will take shelter.
“He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.”
There’s something in the trees. They can’t see it, really, but they – humans and animals – know it’s there. It’s a predator, and nothing so clean a killer as a wolf or a bear, nothing so stupid as a brigand. They can feel its malice, and its attention … and it is a tremendous relief for the little group when they meet up with other travelers.
There are no stereotypes in Something Red. The individuals within these pages look askance at expectations, and walk the other way shaking their heads in disgust. The people – and the events, and the setting … this is thirteenth-century England, in the very dead of winter, and almost as alien as Narnia. Maybe more. In this England there are small enclaves of people huddling together for survival, and travelers – like Molly and her troupe and the holy and unholy travelers they encounter – move from haven to haven trading what they have, such as music and news and healing, for shelter from the elements and the bandits and beasts haunting the forest. In this England there are battle monks who can – and will – beat intruders into bloody pulp, and who have created an ingeniously walled refuge; there are kindly nobles who keep packs of dogs that are almost as scary as anything in the woods; there are Templars and pilgrims and Lithuanian travelers.
Molly is a heroine to make all others look insipid. And I am including the horde of vampire-fighting/loving girls in recent fantasy in that sweeping statement. Molly is a battle queen, and the fact that she is middle-aged (or as I prefer to say, in her prime) has only made her tougher. One minute she will be healing with the gentlest of touches; the next she will be unerringly picking off bandits with a powerful bow. She is desirable: more than one man encountered in their travels makes it clear he would be happy to have her stay with him, but she already has a man in her bed when she chooses. And she has plans to end her exile from Ireland. Her enemies will need to start gathering an army now.
That man is Jack, a big, inscrutable, terribly scarred man who trails a history behind him that he would choose not to discuss even if those scars did not make speech difficult for him. He is far more than the gentle giant a story will sometimes feature; there is always the sense that there is a great deal going on in his heart and his head. He is Molly’s man, in every way, and it is that that helps save him, and all of them in the end.
Nemain is Molly’s granddaughter and her apprentice, on the edge of becoming a woman and shaping up to be every bit as formidable as Molly. She is, at times, otherworldly, a sprite earthbound; at other times she is a young girl who has been rather like a sister to Hob for the year and a half he’s been with the group. At still other times she is like anything but Hob’s sister, and baffling to the poor boy.
Hob is a lovely, lovely character. He is all boy; whatever the setting, boys always have and always will be unchanging in some regards: he goes where he shouldn’t, does what he shouldn’t, is always eager for a treat and reluctant for chores – and is just becoming old enough to see the allure of the young women they meet along the way. He develops a sweet infatuation with one girl, all the while growing more and more aware of Nemain.
Many times I’ve found that after the first flush of a read has worn off, a cooler head and heart means that the original rating for a book edges downward. After a while I’ll go back and look at the notes I made toward a review, and I’ll wonder why on earth I was as generous as I was… With Something Red, though, it went in the opposite direction. I gave it four stars, a “B”. But time has passed, and I find that the impact of the book is still with me. The characters are still vivid. Four is not enough.