Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

I was immediately captured by the cover of this book, and my interest in the book led me to the Strange Chemistry website.  Strange Chemistry is a new imprint of Angry Robot, and they've compiled some pretty fantastic lists of recommended fantasy and science fiction.  The lists make me feel like they're positioning themselves on the geeky side of YA fantasy and sci-fi.  And that's a really good thing.  That's where Joss Whedon likes to hang out, right?  While paranormal romance and dystopia have somehow moved into the mainstream, there are still a lot of teens out there who like the kinda uncool stuff, like cosplay and elves.

I think Blackwood makes an effort to appeal to these teens.  The main character spews references to Battlestar Gallactica and also sheepishly admits to watching the Vampire Diaries.  But will geeky-cool teens really love this title?  I'm doubtful.  Blackwood has history, conspiracy theories, alchemists, and small town cops, but it doesn't have something essential to good genre fiction: mood.

The story takes place in modern day Roanoke, VA., where 114 people disappear over night.  Miranda, daughter of the town drunk, is the only one who sees the ghost of a black-sailed ship soaring through the dark that night.  When she discovers her father is one of the missing, Miranda goes through his closet and finds a jewel-encrusted handgun, which turns out to be as old as the colony.  Helping her figure out what's really going on is Phillips, the police chief's son.  He was sent away to reform school for acting out when his grandmother died.  Turns out he wanted to get away for reasons which may relate to the mass disappearance.

One thing this title does well is the romance.  The chemistry is instant and intense.  Unfortunately, the romance overshadows the gothic elements of the book.  I feel like Miranda and Phillips are so into each other that they forget they need to put on their serious faces and deal with this high-stakes historical mystery. As if to make up for this, Miranda occasionally runs out of buildings or curls up on the bathroom floor and cries.  Then she goes back to being goo-goo eyed about Phillips. 

What this book needed was an infusion of gothic moodiness a la The House of Dies Drear or The Body of Christopher Creed.  Novels like that keep you wondering--what's real and what isn't?  They have dual mysteries--what happened in the past and what's happening now?  And they have evocative settings--places where weird shit might just go unchecked.  Roanoke should have been evocative, but the author didn't do much to set the stage.  The cursory description of gelato shops and colonial storefronts didn't help me believe in flying ships and century old curses.

So.  I didn't love this book, but I went into it with some very specific expectations, based on the fact that it was a story about Roanoke.  I certainly think this novel will play well with readers who like their romance tinged with danger.  It occasionally put me in mind of Wake, actually, with its quasi-murder investigation and bad boy love.  And while the wisecracking writing style took the edge off the creepiness for me, other readers may enjoy the pop culture references and internal monologues.  I still think Strange Chemistry is a publisher to keep an eye on.

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