“The combination of exciting premise and a strong cast of characters—especially our heroine—makes for an exciting, well-paced and thoroughly fantastic read.”
With six novels, two novellas and six collections under his belt, Simon Bestwick has been steadily producing fiction of great quality and is, according to Ramsey Campbell, “one of the most accomplished and eloquent British horror writers”. Indeed, his short fiction has appeared in prominent markets like Black Static and has been included in three volumes of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year anthologies. 2020 has already seen a new short story collection from Bestwick with And Cannot Come Again: Tales of Childhood, Regret and Innocence Lost (Horrific Tales Publishing) and now he has released a new novella.
Told from the point of view of mortuary worker Valerie Varden, as though she is reciting the story to another, at first, unknown character, the book begins with the delivery of a body to the morgue of the Manchester hospital where Valerie works, and has done for a few years. Valerie maintains a cool, calm exterior in front of her colleague, a ballistics expert, and the detective in charge of the murder investigation despite recognising the victim on the table as her friend Erick, from a long, long time ago. As we soon discover, Valerie Varden is, in fact, Countess Valerie Elisabeth Franzsiska von Bradenstein-Vršovci, one of an elite group of soldiers from the Habsburg Empire and one of the two last heirs to the House of Bradenstein.
The appearance of Erick on her table puts her on edge, but it isn’t until the second member of her former team—not to mention her closest friend—Tibor appears on the same table that Valerie is put on high alert. She alternates between her present life and her past, her role as mortuary assistant and her life with partner, Louise (the intended recipient of Valerie’s narration), and her time served in the military of the former Austrian Empire and her preparation for “walking the gate”. Her narration is both entertaining and moving, and just a little educational. We are given a brief history lesson about the state of affairs in the Empire in its death throes, before Europe was plunged into the bloody conflict of the First World War.
While the story mainly takes place in present day England, the narrative is interspersed with brief yet effective flashbacks to Valerie’s childhood with her brother, Ulrich, in the early 1900s, and their military training for a special mission. They are among fifteen “volunteers” chosen to walk through the mysterious and creepy Sindelar Gate, something which, should they survive, will be grant them immortality and incredible healing powers. The only thing that can kill them and, indeed, their enemies, the Black Eagles of the Crownlands, is a special type of ammunition, fired into their head. The popular weapon of choice (and Valerie’s preferred weapon) is the Roth-Steyr pistol.
There are reasons why Valerie is in Manchester and not hunting down the few remaining Black Eagles, none of which we will go into in any great detail. But Bestwick’s exploration of his heroine’s complicated past and conflicted feelings about duty and love is brilliant. From the first mention of her brother and what happened on that frozen lake when they were children, we are immediately invested in their relationship, such intriguing characters they make. Valerie’s reminisces of her former comrades, especially Tibor, are also very touching. The recollections of past battles and confrontations with the Black Eagles, especially the scene in a war-torn Berlin, are very well done. And the scene at the Gate, complete with sinister doctor Sindelar and his dark and mysterious “assistants” adds just a hint of cosmic horror.
But the truly strong elements of the novella are the deep and interesting characters Bestwick has created, and Valerie’s relationships with each of them. We see the complex and confrontational bond she shares with her brother who is dutiful to the core, putting his loyalty to the cause above absolutely everything else. As we can see from the narrative structure of the novella, while Valerie is the main character, she is telling her story to the woman she loves. True, her hand has been forced by current events and she has kept it hidden from Louise for the time they have been together. But, after more than a century of life, with many brief romances along the way, she has finally settled down with someone with whom she is willing to be honest about the whole thing, to tell her everything and accept the consequences, whatever they may be. It makes for a beautiful relationship, and a heart-wrenching finale.
The basic premise of the novella (a group of immortal warriors on a mission) is reminiscent of that recent Netflix original movie, The Old Guard. What Bestwick’s novella has over that so-so movie is superior writing and much more interesting characters. This novella is ripe for a big screen adaptation (Charlize Theron would be fantastic as Valerie, or perhaps Noomi Rapace; we aren’t picky), not to mention more stories set in this particular world. We would certainly love to read more about any of the other survivors of the gate, or the story of the gate’s origin, if Bestwick is that way inclined. The combination of exciting premise and a strong cast of characters—especially our heroine—makes for an exciting, well-paced and thoroughly fantastic read.
Publisher: Black Shuck Books
eBook: 172 (pps.)
Release Date: 17 October 2020
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