Something Red is a beautifully written, patiently drawn, mood-filled literary thriller. It’s not outright scary, but one could classify it as horror. It’s not a straight-out mystery, though poet-turned-novelist Douglas Nicholas drafts an expectant, slow-boil whodunit.
Something Red centers on a small band of travelers winding their way through northern England at the earliest onsets of winter. The story is told through the eyes of Hob, a young orphan in the care of Molly, a world-wise woman who’s equally as skilled with a bow as she is with the medicinal powders and elixirs she keeps in her wagon. Molly’s granddaughter Nemain and the silent, brooding and terrifically strong Jack, flesh out Molly’s troupe.
Nicholas uses his remarkable linguistic skill to build his plot and shape his characters, slowly like the earliest bubbles within a pot coming to boil. The story develops patiently, always on the verge of exposing an important clue, always promising to unlock a key riddle in a characters’ development.
This following quote not only describes a scene midway through the book, but aptly describes the reading experience itself.
Life with Molly’s troupe was a constant procession of revelations … like suddenly stumbling upon an old Roman road in the midst of thick forest.
There’s a supernatural element to the story, but it’s subtle and suggestive, and not fully explored until the final 75 pages or so. The dark and purposefully trudging plot persistently pulls the reader towards an inevitable peak — supernatural, but realistic and very human in its portrayals of emotions and motivations.
Nicholas serves the story like a feast of accents. The core narrative is written in a form of middle-age English, but the various characters are written with both soft and hard Irish brogues, peasant medieval English, and a heavily accented Eastern European.
If a monastery, forest inn and castle form the backdrop for the expositional narrative, then the building pressure and promise of snow and its eventual release in a monster blizzard provides its voice.
A great autumn or winter read, I wanted to step away from my reading nook and find a snowy forest dell to envelope myself further within this tale. But not step away too far from home nor too far from the light. So wonderfully epic in his storytelling, Nicholas establishes a broad mythology that hints at the possibilities within his sequels, The Wicked and Throne of Darkness.
As Hob asks from within the comfortable and warm confines of an English castle:
What could harm us here? What could reach us here?
Much. And more.
Something Red — (2012- ) During the thirteenth century in northwest England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable yet charming Irish healer, Molly, and the troupe she leads are driving their three wagons, hoping to cross the Pennine Mountains before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her lover Jack, granddaughter Nemain, and young apprentice Hob become aware that they are being stalked by something terrible. The refuge they seek in a monastery, then an inn, and finally a Norman castle proves to be an illusion. As danger continues to rise, it becomes clear that the creature must be faced and defeated—or else they will all surely die. It is then that Hob discovers how much more there is to his adopted family than he had realized. An intoxicating blend of fantasy and mythology, Something Red presents an enchanting world full of mysterious and fascinating characters— shapeshifters, sorceresses, warrior monks, and knights—where no one is safe from the terrible being that lurks in the darkness. In this extraordinary, fantastical world, nothing is as it seems, and the journey for survival is as magical as it is perilous.