I had never heard of Dennis Mahoney before picking up Bell Weather, but the bright green ARC cover drew me in: a monochrome print of a woman framed by trees. A hummingbird with bat-wings flies overhead. And over this, in bold white letters, “Enter the world of Root.” Well, with an invitation like that, don’t mind if I do.
Bell Weather is an adventure story following a young woman named Molly Bell as she escapes from two dangerous men bent on controlling her. Molly is a fantastic heroine, kinetic and indomitable. She is described as a “quicksummer spirit.” Associated with images of flowers and flame, she embodies warmth and tenacity, clinging to life through trials that would have killed a weaker person. Near the end of the novel, her brother Nicholas describes her: “It is a quality of yours: a marvelous facility to wriggle out, adapt, and bloom without light.”
This inner vivacity, though, becomes a problem for her when she tries to hide in Root, a small town in the largely-unconquered continent of Colonial Floria. Despite her best attempts to blend in and become part of town life, Molly draws attention — starting fires, injuring herself, arguing with town drunks, and causing gossip by starting a romance with Root’s bachelor tavern owner, Tom Orange. Her relationship with Tom sustains and changes both of them, but eventually, the secrets of her past come to light, drawing danger down on the town as her pursuers come ever closer.
One of Bell Weather’s many strengths is Mahoney’s facility with description and setting. He has created a marvelous place in Root, a homely colonial outpost set on a continent of wonders. Like Molly herself, the weather around Root is volatile, ephemeral, unique. Storms wash the land in color. St. Verna’s fire is green electricity which clings to objects and people that it strikes. Winter comes all of a sudden in a yearly event called “deadfall” when the temperature plummets. Plants like ember gourds, which combust if not harvested on time, and stalkers, weeds that can walk, populate the land alongside animals like winterbears, grey wolfish bears. But Mahoney doesn’t rely on the strangeness of his setting alone. His language is lovely and surprising, too. He shows us hoarfur dripping from the branches: “the filaments gave the woods a moldering appearance, like a spiderwebbed crypt far below the earth.” The flight of cravens, small black birds afraid of everything, is described as “whirl[ing], dark and fluid, in a smooth gorgeous panic.”
This magical, inexplicable setting takes a backseat to the story, though, which is largely based in realism. Like most of the plot of Katherine Addison‘s The Goblin Emperor, the major events of Bell Weather could have happened in our world. Fantasy colors but doesn’t overwhelm the human action, which includes grueling journeys, deception and disguise, and several near deaths for Molly, her brother Nicholas, and her lover Tom.
This is where Bell Weather comes alive: its people. Mahoney doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing the personal appearance of his characters, but he communicates the feel of them through tiny gestures, impressions, and dialogue. Nothing communicates the terror that General Bell can inspire better than his line to his children, “There is God, and there is me. And God cannot protect you.” Or the expression of keen disappointment following joy: “Lem’s smile grew deformed, tangling in his beard.” Or the feeling of knowing you are loved: “Molly’s heart became an orange, nourishing and bright.” Or what is possibly the funniest line in the novel, exposing how the Bell children allow the household to decay around them while their father is away: “The laundry maid, wearing a ball gown and surrounded by feral cats she had taken to feeding, was caught reading a scandalous novel in the library.”
Bell Weather’s characters are each imperfect: impetuous, hard-headed, selfish, devious, or cowardly. But on the whole, Mahoney is remarkably generous towards his characters, portraying tenderness, attraction, and steadfast friendship. Even those characters we learn to hate or fear the most — General Bell, Nicholas, or the odious Mrs. Wickware — benefit from moments of vulnerability and flashes of deeply felt emotion. And part of Molly’s charm is that she can’t help but love the people who have hurt her the most. For instance, her father, General Bell, was harsh and abusive towards both of his children. However, after escaping her father, Molly remembers him: ““She thought of hugging him the day he said goodbye and left for Floria, of reaching for his saber when he dragged her on the floor. Love made her miss him, love and all its afterbirth.”
To sum up, Bell Weather was a rewarding, thrilling, and surprisingly touching read. I look forward to reading more of what Mahoney has to offer, especially as he’s left Molly and Tom’s story at a nice stopping point, but with the potential for a follow-up.