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The Crow Maiden by Sarah Singleton
(Cosmos, $29.95, 236 pages, hardback, published June 2001, ISBN: 1587153270. Also available in trade paperback, $15.95, ISBN: 1587153246.)

Sarah Singleton has been quietly making a name for herself with short stories published in various UK magazines. One of these, cover scan"Ebb Tide", was selected for David Hartwell's Year's Best Fantasy this year. An extraordinary novella, In The Mirror, sold out in its original limited edition and has recently been re-published. Her work is characterised by a distinctive prose style, taking normal, everyday life and imbuing it with a magical quality. And somewhere along the way, you realise that you've stepped off the path and you're in a very dark place indeed.

So it is with her first novel, The Crow Maiden. Set in present day Wiltshire in the UK, it follows the "Locksbury protest". From their tree houses and their squat, the protestors seek to prevent the building of a new bypass road. Being hippie types, they believe the land to be teeming with mystical energy. But in this case they are more right than they realise, and unfortunately for them, the barriers between worlds are coming apart at the seams.

We begin with Katherine and Paul and their baby daughter Niamh. While Paul works in his study writing letters in support of the protest, and Niamh lies sleeping in her cot, Katherine decides to go out for a walk in the twilight. As darkness approaches, she meets the enigmatic woman called Crow, and makes a fateful decision. Katherine goes missing, Paul has a strange erotic dream, after which his daughter has a foul odour. Later, Katherine is discovered in a confused state, with no recollection of what has happened to her.

We're introduced to other characters who will play important roles in the story. Jo, a young Goth, tall but strangely insubstantial. Elaine, a charismatic outsider who is part of the group but also apart from it. James, a local reporter covering the protest, who may fancy Katherine. Owain, who wanders the land alone, picking up work wherever he finds it. Before long, the reader is embroiled in their lives. Worrying along with Katherine about Niamh. Lusting after Katherine, like Paul. Wondering whether James will make a move on her. Suspicious of Elaine, but attracted to her too. Wondering when Crow will reappear.

The plot moves forward along two lines. Firstly, the conflict between the protestors and the developers of the bypass escalates, with inevitable police involvement. We come to know the protestors as their relationships develop. And fear for them. Secondly, as the barriers between our world and the other world become increasingly destabilised, we begin to cross over to the other side. The other world is the land of faery, but don't expect tiny pixies with butterfly wings. Singleton's faeryland is an altogether darker place, full of passions and confusion as well as beauty and magic.

We follow Katherine into that other world as she attempts to discover what happened to her that first night when she encountered Crow. We begin to wonder who else has a connection with that other place. And we see its dark distortions seeping back into our world. There is a complexity to the story that is not apparent in the beginning. I particularly enjoyed the way the mysteries gradually unfold, forcing you to re-evaluate what has gone before.

On the back cover, Ian Watson lavishes praise upon the book, and quite rightly so. If you enjoy stories that are firmly based in the real world but then launch off into utter strangeness then you will enjoy this book. It is also worth noting that the publisher, Cosmos Books, has done a terrific job on it. The hardback copy I have has a brilliant cover and superb print quality throughout.

The Crow Maiden is this year's best-kept secret. The book is readily available from internet bookshops such as Amazon, but is generally not to be found on high street bookshelves. Which is a shame but do not let that stand in your way. It deserves to sell by the truckload. The characters are entirely believable. The story is complicated and yet it all makes sense. The prose is dazzling throughout. I love its dark, sensual quality.

Review by Chris Butler.

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© Chris Butler 8 December 2001