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Feather & Bone
Big Engine paperback £8.99
review by Patrick Hudson
Feather & Bone is a horror novel concerning supernatural events in and around a rural community in Northumberland. After the appearance cattle showing symptoms of BSE, Alison Rigg is despatched by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to find the source of the infected cattle and ensure that action is taken before it blows up into a national scandal. Immediately, she has to deal with the insular locals and the possible complicity of the local MAF inspector, but there is a more ancient and dangerous secret than a few sick cows. An evil spirit haunts the valley, a malign influence that has existed since ancient times and is growing in power once more. Before long this spirit - the Druergar - has evicted Alison from her body, leaving her trapped on the astral plain, and its influence is threatening to destroy the lives of everyone it comes in contact with.
Although Feather & Bone is slow to start, and stretches credibility somewhat in its first 50 pages, it gradually won over my initial scepticism. After the unsteady beginning, the horror - particularly that surrounding the prodigiously psychic young girl Isabel - becomes morbidly riveting as it gradually ratchets up to 11. Smith has a real talent for turning the horror up notch by notch, until I really did begin to wonder - despite my logical assumptions about happy endings - whether it wasn't all going to end horribly.
The leisurely pace allows Smith to vividly evoke rural Britain, and the good and evil inherent in nature. For the residents of the valley, it is a haven of beauty and peace, but under the malign influence of the Druergar it becomes mysterious, impenetrable and deadly. Additionally, Smith is plainly versed in the realities of farming and agriculture, and paints a bleak but convincing view of rural life.
The novel's protagonists - of whom there are many, almost all of them having a share of the limelight - are detailed and complex with convincing and distinct voices. Smith describes likable, sometimes flawed, characters with great skill, although Preston the venal tabloid journalist is pure stereotype. The multi-character narrative Smith uses is reminiscent of Stephen King, and King's influence is also evident in the choice of location, and the ancient, folkloric foe, but Smith's is a distinct vision.
There are problems with this book, however. The early proliferation of psychically gifted witch-women, in particular, threatens to derail the novel completely. I was willing to accept Isabel as something special, and the knowledge and power of Rose is crucial to the plot, but when even the woman from the Ministry turns out to be a witch - and a glamorous lesbian to boot - the novel threatens to leave the real world behind. This is potentially disastrous - if the world doesn't ring true then the horror loses its impact and the New Age twaddle had me snorting with derision. In the end, however, Alison's knowledge and sexuality have little to do with the final events (begging the question of why they are there at all) and Smith manages to keep them from distracting from the otherwise convincing background.
This problem is exacerbated by the book's slow build up, giving the reader too much time to ponder these unlikely coincidences. This prolixity works to Smith's advantage in the middle, where the horror builds in slow, incremental steps, but more zip is required at the outset and at the end, when the conclusion is clear but still takes 60-odd pages to come about.
Overall, this is an effective horror that uses the rural setting and characters well. The intensity of horror is nicely judged throughout, and the denouement is effective, if a little slow coming. Feather & Bone is a worthwhile read with plenty action and horror for the aficionado and an interesting take on folklore and rural affairs for the more general reader.
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