Gus Smith's debut adult fantasy novel, set in the remote Northumberland countryside, is a story of folktale and legend mixed with more worldly events that have a horror of their own.
Alison Rigg is sent by the Ministry for Agriculture And Fisheries to investigate reports of an outbreak of BSE in the Coquet valley. Within a short space of time she is drawn into a series of events that threaten her own existence, events which will also change the lives of many in the local community. Farmers, a young policeman, and a family with a father suffering from unexplained bouts of ill health, a mother declining into depression, and a daughter who speaks to no-one but the animals around her are all affected by the return of something as old as the Cheviot hills.
The blend of supernatural events is occasionally uneasy -- creatures of traditional British folklore mingle with some rather more modern thinking about astral travel. The strengths of the book are where Gus Smith mines the more traditional seams of folklore and myth, as the atmosphere this creates works very well with the setting, which is itself another highpoint: as the least populated county in England, it is an ideal location for the events that take place. The remoteness of the area lends a certain believability to the story that unfolds, whether the mystery is of this world -- the outbreak of BSE -- or of another. Smith doesn't flinch from some of the realities of hill-farming. Hard work, Ministry form filling, fear of disease and the quiet poverty of the countryside -- this helps ground the events of the rest of the book in a setting that is implacably real -- modern concerns in an ancient landscape.
For much of the book Smith handles the supernatural in an effective and understated way, building on tension and foreshadowing greater shocks to come. There is an occasional descent into early James Herbert (or Guy N Smith) shock and gore territory, without which I think the book would be stronger. In one scene an ambitious journalist makes an appalling discovery, something that would shock even the most seasoned of war correspondents, but then continues happily with his plans to expose a sex scandal, with his horrifying find immediately relegated to nothing more than an afterthought. It is perhaps ironic that when characters act in such an unlikely way, it damages my suspension of disbelief in a novel rather more than the intrusion of the supernatural. Smith is an able enough writer to unsettle or disturb the reader without such a blunt application of rather tired horror standards, which jar with the more subtle tone of the rest of the novel.
The at times casual revelation that several characters in the novel possess psychic or otherworldly powers is not always introduced as deftly as it could have been, and creates a risk of leaving the reader feeling 'oh, and here's another one'. It would perhaps have strengthened the novel if the paranormal world had been made to seem rather less part of the everyday, a little less mechanised and a little more marvellous. The history and experience that the characters possess of such goings on means that the reader views events through a filter that takes away much of the magic, fear and wonder of such a departure from normality. Nonetheless, there is also much that is well-handled, in particular the events that happen to Alison from the moment she leaves her car on a lonely road. This is original and well-written -- although again, it would perhaps have had more impact had Alison been a little less blasé about this extraordinary experience because of her previous encounters -- encounters that are hinted at but never fully explored in this novel.
It is this last point which illustrates one of this book's strengths -- but a strength that must have given the author a continual challenge: Feather And Bone is a book brimming with ideas and characters and plots and sub-plots, enough for at least a couple of novels at least. It is to Gus Smith's credit that he manages to hold all of this invention and creativity together throughout a novel which explores some lesser-used avenues within the genre, and is all the better for doing so.
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© Iain Rowan 11 May 2002