Emily Bestler Books/Atria, September 2012
Something Red, the first novel by Douglas Nicholas, follows a group of traveling musicians through the wintry forests of northern England in the thirteenth century. The viewpoint character is Hob, an orphan English boy who has been taken on as the youngest member of the troupe. His companions include the captivating young Nemain; old Jack, a war-haunted veteran of the Crusades; and Molly, a mysterious old woman who is almost certainly more than she seems. What first seems like a straightforward historical adventure slowly begins to take on overtones of magic and even horror, and then – well, I don’t want to spoil it.
Nicholas‘s author bio notes that he is “an award-winning poet.” This may seem like an unusual credential for writing historical fantasy, but Nicholas‘s poetic genealogy is evident from the book’s first sentence. “The wheels were solid disks,” he writes, “as high as Hob himself, and the wood was warped a little and wet with the snow now coming down hard and clinging in patchy lumps to the rims.”
It’s not that this sentence is flowery, or full of ten-cent words, or any of the other things that readers who avoid poetry are afraid of running into. What it does demonstrate, though, is a meticulous attention to detail, and a level of focus that makes most of the novel feel as though it’s shot in extreme closeup. Nicholas has a poet’s sense of the perfectly chosen image, and the weight of language.
Nicholas‘s writing style clearly isn’t going to be for everyone. . If, for instance, you thought Fellowship of the Ring had too much walking; if you skip the prologues in A Song of Ice and Fire; if you absolutely don’t care what the wheels are made of and just want something to happen already – this book probably isn’t for you.
I ended up liking Something Red quite a bit, but even so I had to read the first chapter several times before I was sure of who everyone was and what was going on. For a novel that is only 315 pages in paperback, it took me an unusually long time to read.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with a book that asks a reader to take her time. The medieval setting is so precisely drawn that it’s clear Nicholas not only researched his world, but thoroughly imagined what it would be like to live in it. Once I lowered myself into the icy waters of Nicholas‘s prose, I was in no hurry to resurface.
A sequel, The Wicked, will be released in March, and I’m already looking forward to it.
Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, February 2014.
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