The Secrets of Blood and Bone is the second book in Rebecca Alexander’s JACKDAW HAMMOND fantasy series. I haven’t read the first book, The Secrets of Life and Death, yet but I found I could follow events in this book with little trouble. There may be some mild spoilers for the first book in this review.
I got interested in this book when I read Alexander’s post on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, where she talked about making Edward Kelley a major character. Edward Kelley, a sometime colleague of Elizabethan-era philosopher John Dee, is… well, an historical, over the top, “real character.” I’ve never made up my mind whether he was a) a gold-grubbing con man; b) a complete whack-job; or c) both. Armstrong chooses to make him reluctantly heroic, but she leans slightly toward “con man,” at least in the sense that Kelley never hesitates to lie when it serves his purpose.
Kelley is not the main character here, though. Jackdaw, who goes by “Jack,” and her ward Sadie are our protagonists. Jack is a revenant; nearly undead, a person living on “borrowed time.” Herbs and magical sigils sustain her (and Sadie, who has also been turned into a revenant) but in the first book, Jack tasted human blood, and that has changed her, giving her strength and vitality and bringing with it some disturbing impulses.
Their academic friend Felix is exploring the culture of the revenants to see if there is some lasting cure. Meanwhile, Jack and Sadie have moved to the English countryside to solve the murder of a country witch and restore her cottage and her magical garden. Soon they are accosted by the local aristocratic family, who demand a potion that the former occupant used to make, and Jack recognizes revenant behavior and something more savage in the family.
In sixteenth century Venice, Edward Kelley pursues a strange tablet with writing that is important to the British nobility who hired him (the same family that is threatening Jack and Sadie). Kelley also meets up again with a revenant monster, the countess Elizabeth Bathory, who, it transpires, was Jack’s adversary in the first book.
Kelley’s chapters are short and, as The Secrets of Blood and Bone progresses, filled with action. Kelley feels a sense of guilt over his role in helping to create the vampiric Bathory, and it’s plain that his quest in the 1500s has echoes in the battle Jack and Sadie are fighting. In the present-tense storyline, things start slow but build to real suspense, with one detour while Felix goes to New Orleans and then flies to France to gather information about revenants.
Most of this is setting up for the next book, but while it was well-written, the strangeness and sense of otherness felt forced, rather than evolving naturally from the story the way the Bee Cottage sections did.
I loved Bee Cottage’s garden. I won’t go so far as to say it’s my favorite character, but darn, it was close. It is a magical garden and plays a valuable role in the story. It also has its own motivations, which means it’s not always friendly, even to the good guys.
I liked the revelation of Jack’s magical ability to communicate with animals. This is not a story about magical talking animals; Jack’s connection is different and I love how Alexander chose to do this. Generally, throughout the book, Alexander puts neat twists on traditional, conventional European magic and folktales, and I enjoyed that.
The Secrets of Blood and Bones gives us two scary and atmospheric chase scenes, one in the past and one in the present. Then it rushes to a cliffhanger ending, which I found awkward. Still, I’m captivated by this story. I will read the first book, and I’m waiting for the third, to discover how this group of magical people escape the curse of immortal blood-drinkers.