*WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*
In theory, this book should have been my jam. The story opens with Elizabeth Vogelsang being found dead in a river near her Cambridge home, clutching a glass prism in her hand. Elizabeth is a 17th-century scholar who specializes in Isaac Newton, and her death interrupts her work on a book exploring Newton’s interest in alchemy. Elizabeth’s son, Cameron, recruits Lydia Brooke (a writer, friend of Elizabeth, and Cameron’s former lover) to ghost-write the rest of Elizabeth’s book. Along the way, Lydia tries to unravel the secrets in Elizabeth’s research – secrets that might have led to her death.
I’m going to go ahead and get the most absurd thing about this book out of the way first, so we can acknowledge it and move on. Okay, so you want to know who killed Elizabeth, right? The book is set up like a murder mystery/historic fiction/supernatural mashup, so you know the solution to the murder is going to be good. Ready?
A ghost did it. The murderer is literally a ghost.
Don’t worry, we’ll get back to that. I just wanted to give everyone a vague idea of where this crazy train is headed, because that’s more than Rebecca Stott did for me.
(quick note: I purchased this book secondhand; however, it’s still an ARC, so all quoted passages may be different in the final published version)
I started to sense that something was wrong by the first chapter. After a prologue where we see Elizabeth’s body being found by her son, Chapter One begins from Lydia’s perspective. She describes the days after Elizabeth’s death, and then suddenly we’re in a police interrogation room, and Lydia’s narration informs us that “Elizabeth Vogelsang drowned in September, 2002, the first of three deaths that would become the subject of a police investigation four months later.”
Okay, let’s take a minute to sort that out, because there’s a lot of information there. So the book isn’t going to focus just on Elizabeth’s death, but also two other people. Presumably we will meet these people at some point in the narrative and grow to care about them, and their deaths will be appropriately placed in the narrative to maintain suspense (yes to the first, sort of to the second, nope to the third). Also, since the police investigation happens four months after Elizabeth’s death, we’ve got a relatively short time frame to work with. And Lydia will be very close to these deaths. Okay, cool.
But then, only a few paragraphs later, Stott drops this on us: “…I would have to be careful and alert here at the Parkside Police Station. Very alert. They had arrested Lily Ridler.”
That line comes seven pages into the novel. It is the first time that Lily Ridler is mentioned, and it will be way, way too long before she’s mentioned again (in fact, until I flipped back to the beginning of the book to look for quotes, I had completely forgotten that they mention this character by name so early). By the time we figure out who this character is and why we should care, I had already stopped caring.
Suspense novels are tricky, because you have to keep your audience invested without showing too many of your cards at once. Rebecca Stottt has the entire story of Ghostwalk mapped out in her head already, but she forgets that her reader doesn’t. She goes so overboard with the exposition and the “but little did I know…” foreshadowing that the reader gets overwhelmed, and can’t figure out what they should be paying attention to for later. Lydia keeps giving us these descriptions from the police station and the courtroom, but it’s so disconnected from everything else that’s happening in the story that by the time I had put together all the important details from the investigation, I no longer cared. Stott thinks she’s prolonging the tension, but by so insistently teasing the ending, all she’s doing is frustrating the reader and distracting from the real-time events in the story.
If I had to pinpoint the central issue in this book, it’s that Stott is trying to do too many things at once. There’s the murder mystery, and then there’s a pretty heavy supernatural element – I think Stott was going for a Gothic ghost story kind of thing, but the first instance of it is clumsy and jarring: Lydia goes to Elizabeth’s funeral and meets a woman with one blind eye who says things like “Oh, but [Elizabeth] is still here. I haven’t seen her yet, but she’s here all right. The others are here too. Don’t you feel them?” Maybe it was my fault, for not knowing what kind of book this was going to be when I started, but I could never get into the Gothic mindset that Stott is trying so hard to create. I can’t really put my finger on why the supernatural element didn’t work for me – it was either taken too seriously, or not seriously enough. On the one hand, if you’re going to write a book about a ghost who murders people, why not have some fun with it? Indulge in the overblown melodramatic creepiness of your story and go for gold, like The Shadow of the Wind. At the same time, no one in the book seems at all bothered by the fact that they’re clearly being haunted. Lydia, who is staying in Elizabeth’s house while she finishes her book, notices weird light patterns, like reflecting water, on the walls of the house. And one morning, after spending the night with her on-again boyfriend Cameron (we’ll get there, don’t worry), she wakes up and sees that he has blood all over his face. And both of their reactions don’t go any farther than “Huh, that’s weird.” And later, after Lydia washes the pillowcase, the bloodstain comes back. She burns the pillowcase, but there’s no other discernable reaction, as if shit like this happens all the time in this universe and it’s not something to get worked up over. The characters, most of whom are scientists and scholars, accept the reality of psychics and ghosts with no reservation whatsoever, and I was not having it.
Maybe I would have been more receptive to the Ghost Murderers From History angle if it were the main plotline in the book, but alas, the ghost murders have to fight for space alongside another plotline that is somehow even more ridiculous. Ready?
Okay, so Cameron (son of Elizabeth, recall) is a scientist at a pharmaceutical company. The company tests on animals, and there’s a radical animal rights group that is so radical they attack another scientist, and also have a habit of murdering scientists’ pets.
QUICK BREAK FOR AN ANGRY TANGENT: Yeah, the animal rights group steals people’s pets and kills them. I thought Stott was letting me off easy when Cameron tells Lydia that his daughters’ pet guinea pigs were killed, so his wife is taking the girls out of Cambridge to get away from things. That’s fine, I thought – we’ve established that this activist group is dangerous, and it also gets Cameron’s family out of the picture so he and Lydia can bang. But I had forgotten, dear reader, that Elizabeth also has a cat. A cat that Lydia is now responsible for. Guess what shows up dead on her doorstep one day? Guess what injuries get described in detail? Guess who spends a hefty amount of text speculating on the cat’s terrifying last moments?
It was gratuitous and unnecessary, and I kind of hate Rebecca Stott for making me read it. I am not the sort of person to put trigger warnings on things, but I would warn anyone planning to read this book that the cat’s death is detailed, upsetting, and utterly pointless.
Anyway, back to the plot overload: We’ve got the animal activists, and at the end of the book, we find out that there’s this shady government group called, I shit you not, the Syndicate, and they are actually the ones who created the activist group, to discredit the real activists. And guess who’s in charge of this evil corporation? Cameron, obviously!
Hey, remember how the ghost of a 17th century alchemist murdered someone in the 21st century? What does that have to do with creepy government agencies? Absolutely fucking nothing, but someone let Rebecca Stott believe that trying to cram these two huge plotlines into one novel was a good idea. I have a feeling that the Syndicate was a later addition, after some well-intentioned idiot was like, “Hey, Rebecca, I think you need to up the stakes in this story. Have you read The Da Vinci Code? Well…”
I didn’t even get a chance to mention that whenever Lydia’s narration mentions Cameron, she refers to him as “you.” Like the whole book is a really long letter Lydia is writing to him. It’s horrible and utterly pointless and I don’t know why no one caught it before letting this book be published.
That, and the dialogue. Here’s a sample conversation between Lydia and Will, Elizabeth’s former research assistant (it is important to know that at this point in the book, there has been absolutely no hint that the Syndicate will be a plotline, so this conversation was absolute fucking gibberish to me when I first read it):
“‘Look,’ [Will] said. ‘I’m going to have to go away for a while. I came to say goodbye.’
‘You’ll be back?’
‘Oh yes, I hope so. Depends on what happens over the next few weeks.’
‘Could be a week or a month. Probably not any longer. And I’ve arranged for someone to keep an eye out for you.’
‘An eye on me? Why?’
‘Because you’re caught up in something complicated and it might be dangerous. I can’t explain because I’m not allowed to and because I can’t just give you bits – I’d have to explain it all.’
‘To do with Elizabeth’s manuscript?’
‘No, absolutely nothing to do with all of that. Something very un-seventeenth century. Now go to bed and don’t think about it. I’ll be back as soon as I can.'”
Now go to bed and don’t think about it.
For fuck’s sake, human beings don’t talk like that. The only people who talk like that are characters in a bad novel written by an author who doesn’t know how to create genuine suspense!
Utter fiasco. If you’re looking for a creepy October read, this is not it.
Verdict: one out of five stars