Book Review: Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven by Jessica McHugh

“A hugely entertaining dark fantasy with something to say about human nature, this novel should be on the shelf of everyone who yearns to read something unique and different.”

 

Jessica McHugh is a writer whose creative talents seemingly know no bounds. In addition to her many novels—The Train Derails in Boston, Rabbits in the Garden, and her Darla Decker series—she has dozens of short stories across a variety of anthologies and publications. She has also had success as a poet and a playwright and is even an accomplished singer and dancer (as evidenced by her Facebook and Instagram uploads). Not content with restricting her expressive outlets, she also plays in a variety of genres, often mixing two or more to great effect. And such is the case here, with her dystopian dark fantasy, Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven.

Opening with a scene of the heroine, Shal, being dragged onto a boat by a jailer, the reader is thrust immediately into the action. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might be where we put the book down in overwhelmed confusion. But McHugh’s prose—lyrical and poetic—manages to be immersive and compelling, clear even while it is inventively and intricately descriptive. It’s a rare writer who can command the attention while also parcelling out a new world in the midst of action. And McHugh does this so very well. The backstory and setting are given to us over the course of the story, even as we follow Shal’s efforts to survive her current incarceration, and, hopefully, effect some kind of escape. It’s very clever and a calculated risk; we are given just enough information to get our heads around this invented world but are always desperate for more as we become invested in Shal’s plight. It keeps the reader turning the pages, faster and faster as the stakes grow and become more apparent.

And as for this world—it is an alternate reality called Cartesia, which a few hundred years previous fell to ruin and destruction with the death of God. Legends claim it was a newly deceased human making an impossible bargain with the deity that caused this demise, resulting in the creation of the Capesman, the usherer of souls. In the midst of this ruin, a crack opened between Cartesia and our world, allowing various artefacts through; “rift gold”. Some of this was machinery, some of it art and books; all of it became precious and sought after. True to human nature, some sought these treasures more than others, and wars were fought. Now Cartesia is a world of pain, misery, and darkness; a cloud of despondency and despair hangs over the land, and life is—for the poor, the under-privileged, the oppressed—harsh, violent, and terribly unfair. It’s a world ruled by the elites, calling themselves the Council, descendants of those who gathered the most “rift gold” and became overlords, cruel and merciless. Shal leads a group of rebels, determined to crush the Council and its Senators, led by her step-father and hated enemy, Chancellor Doa. But first she must survive Malay, the brutal prison in which she resides.

This book is stunning. A meld of various genres—dark fantasy and dystopian as mentioned, but also with elements of horror, science fiction, and grimdark; there’s even room for a kind of love story, though not the fluffy, comforting kind. It also has a subtext reflecting certain current events on a political scale. Specifically, it examines what might happen when sociopathic, ideological leaders are allowed free, unfettered reign to indulge their vile natures. Thus, Cartesia is a cruel, savage world where very little goodness lives. Grace survives only in the most hidden and fragile of places. For this story is also about the damage that pain, torture, and a life of suffering can have on a person’s psyche. It shows that to combat evil and excess, it takes not a pure, untouched hero but a person—or people—who are just as familiar with the darker side of human nature. Shal and her allies mete out violent justice against their enemies with savage ferocity and little mercy, with as much barbarity as the antagonists. That is not to say, “both sides are just as bad as each other”, but it paints a realistic—as much as an alternate reality fantasy story can—picture of damaged and driven protagonists. But while they still fight for a better world, it is suggested that for any good world to truly thrive and prosper, some of those who have helped to usher it in may not be able to exist there. Heady stuff.

Yet despite the cloud of bleak anguish which permeates Cartesia, the reader is prevented from being overwhelmed by grim oppression through the beautiful writing. The prose sings and dances with inventive lyricism, with a lovely cadence and rhythm. It gives the story a deceptive yet necessary harmony of lightness, elevating what might otherwise be too depressing a tale. It also helps that McHugh doesn’t bludgeon the reader with endless descriptions of atrocity. Instead, she creates far more affecting images with a few well-chosen words and phrases, sketching scenes of an horrific nature instead of painting vast murals. It makes these events all the more perturbing, in a way many overly-described (and badly-written) “torture-porn” stories can’t. It also helps that there is real emotion, here, with vivid characters to feel and root for.

There is more, much more: The threads of William Shakespeare that permeate the book, his Complete Works an anchor for Shal’s past and a connection to her father; the love she has for her step-sister Kati, a bond that drives much of her fury and passion; strange monsters that may or may not be sentient; antagonists the reader will love to hate; a well-realised tapestry of a society in ruin and turmoil. And even though the story is complete and satisfying, there is a sense that it could be delved into in further detail. Further books set in this world would be more than welcome, along with a deeper exploration of its solid mythology and hinted at secrets. What is Cartesia’s connection to our world? Is God really dead or simply slumbering in a hidden corner of reality? What other creatures exist in this place, what unseen societies?

However, the reader must be satisfied with what is here, and satisfied they absolutely should be. Nightly Owl, Fatal Raven is a book that lingers long in the mind after reading. It is a fast-paced, intricate journey that manages to employ a number of tricky narrative devices without losing the reader. Indeed, its very structure is what draws the reader in, tantalising and teasing just enough to keep the momentum going. It’s truly wonderfully structured, and even when the character point of view changes—sometimes in mid-chapter—there is no confusion as to what’s happening. A hugely entertaining dark fantasy with something to say about human nature, this novel should be on the shelf of everyone who yearns to read something unique and different. Buy it, and become an instant fan of Jessica McHugh.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press
Paperback: 220 (ps)
Release Date: 14 June 2018

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