Brimstone by Cherie Priest fantasy book reviewsBrimstone by Cherie Priest fantasy book reviewsBrimstone by Cherie Priest

Brimstone (2017) is a throwback to some of Cherie Priest’s earlier work in theme and in setting. The story takes place in Florida, this time in Cassadaga, a real town which, like Lily Dale in northern New York, was founded by spiritualists. Cassadaga still exists and still draws the public for psychic readings, classes and attempts to contact deceased loved ones. In Brimstone, Alice Dartle comes to Cassadaga to learn about her own psychic gift, and Tomas Corderos flees there in an attempt to escape a terrifying spirit of fire, which soon puts the whole town in danger.

The book is set in 1920; both World War I and Prohibition play their parts in the story. What I loved best were the two main characters and their contrasting narrative voices. Alice is young, brash and rebellious, having honed her defiance skills in a home with a controlling, disapproving mother. Tomas, a war veteran and a successful tailor, is a widower trapped in grief. Very early in the book he tells us that his wife Evelyn died of influenza while he was fighting in Europe, and was buried outside Ybor City in a mass grave. He does not even know where her body his; he has no grave to visit, and this theme, of Evelyn being “lost,” plays throughout the story, providing some depth to a tale that is in other ways surprisingly light-hearted.

Tomas has a series of small fires that start in his home spontaneously. Often, there is a mark left in the soot of the fire; like a handprint or, in one case, what looks like a line drawing of a woman. Tomas begins to believe that the spirit of Evelyn is reaching out to him from beyond the grave. Tomas is no stranger to fire. In the war, he was part of a team that deployed a terrifying mega-flame-thrower, and it’s no coincidence now that he is being haunted by flames.

Alice, meanwhile, has come to Cassadaga to learn more about her clairvoyance. In her journal she notes that female ancestors of hers were killed as witches. As soon as she gets to the charming town of Cassadaga, Alice seems somewhat obsessed with the idea of witch burnings, although she can’t quite say why. And she is sharing dreams with a man who dreams of fire. The psychic connection between Alice and Tomas, long before they meet, is well done.

Despite the seriousness of the stakes, the villainous nature of the thing that is stalking Tomas and the body count, which is high, Brimstone has a surprisingly light tone at times. Alice is funny and fun-loving; of course, in short order, she finds the one speakeasy in Cassadaga. The descriptions of the town bring it to life, and I loved the general readings done before the services start each week.

Something I always notice in a Priest book but have not mentioned before is how well-drawn secondary and minor characters are. Priest peoples her work with people. There is a large cast of secondary and minor characters in Brimstone, but I had no trouble keeping them clear, and each one was well-drawn, with their own quirks and styles of speech. It was fun watching Alice render her judgments on the various spiritualists in town. Meanwhile, in Ybor City, Tomas’s two employees, Emilio and Silvio, were well developed and believable, as was his neighbor.

Priest also spent some time on the details of the tailor shop, bringing it to life. This not only enriches the story but it lets us see how much Tomas has to lose.

The villain is truly horrifying, the more so for being based on an historical character. Unlike other recent Priest works, Brimstone ends on a positive, optimistic note, making full use of the values of spiritualism. Priest did research here (and thanks the town of Cassadaga in her afterword) but the research is all in service to this story, creating a plausible premise and a richly described setting. Because the story alternates point of view, Alice’s story seems a little slow to get started. I noticed that, but I didn’t care because following her around the town was so much fun. Tomas is haunted from the first pages of his section and the growing sense of foreboding was suspenseful.

Once again, Priest delivers an exciting, lively Southern Gothic, one that ends on a note of hope and triumph.

Published April 4, 2017. A new dark historical fantasy from the “supremely gifted” Cherie Priest, author of Mapelcroft and Boneshaker. In the trenches of Europe during the Great War, Tomás Cordero operated a weapon more devastating than any gun: a flame projector that doused the enemy in liquid fire. Having left the battlefield a shattered man, he comes home to find yet more tragedy—for in his absence, his wife has died of the flu. Haunted by memories of the woman he loved and the atrocities he perpetrated, Tomás dreams of fire and finds himself setting match to flame when awake…. Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower. And she believes she can bring peace to him and his wife’s spirit. But the inferno that threatens to consume Tomás and Alice was set ablaze centuries ago by someone whose hatred transcended death itself….


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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