Something Red: A Novel - Douglas Nicholas

~~Moved from GR~~


Something Red

by Douglas Nicholas


Something Red captures the purest elements of suspense: the fear of the unknown, of the mundane suddenly becoming unreal. The tale is told from the perspective of Hob, a thirteen-year-old boy recently apprenticed into a motley band of travelling musicians. Hob's companions are Jack, a dark and silent man of impressive strength and great gentleness, Nemain, a beautiful red-haired girl of about Hob's age, and Molly, the mysterious and powerful healer and leader of the group. As the band travels about the northwest of England, their ordinary experiences of travel are repeatedly interrupted by terrifying deaths and maulings that defy all attempts of defence and protection. As the fear steadily grows, it is unclear which is more terrifying: the mysterious beast deep in the shadows of the forest or the unknown monster within the group itself.

The book itself defies categorization. Although the blurb describes it as a combination of mystery, fantasy, and romance, I would consider it much more of a historical novel or coming-of-age story with a touch of the supernatural. The plot itself details the characters' trek across the country as they attempt to avoid the mysterious being that seems to stalk their very footsteps. Although there is a continual and brilliantly constructed feeling of suspense and fear of the unknown, to me, the story lacks the action-driven focus of a thriller. The mystery itself is not particularly complex; there are very direct hints throughout of the individuals involved, although the actual mechanism has a fantastic and unexpected twist.

Considering the convenient absence of the villain, I didn't find it hard to guess who was responsible. I loved the fact that the characters' names had meanings (the monster's name means "dream") and was excited to find out the motivations, but I was disappointed by the superficiality and lack of depth. Maybe I'm naïve, but I don't think general bloodthirstiness and greed would drive someone to help a monster to slaughter others. As for the “companion monster”, I think we were supposed to guess early what was going on there, given that at 20%, we already knew he was hirsute, incredibly strong, and growly-voiced. The reader's knowledge of his dual character greatly added to the suspense. I had him pinned as a werewolf, however--I had no suspicions that he was a silver-backed gorilla!

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It instead feels focused on the experiences of the journey and their effects on Hob as he grows into manhood. The title itself perfectly captures the mood of the story, for the suspense and fear stems from the unknown, from the “something” glimpsed in the dark shadows of the forest, the ambiguous hints about the gruesome secrets of one of his companions, and his own confused feelings for the red-haired Nemain as he stands on the threshold of maturity. Red, the colour of blood, takes on the attributes of both violence and life. “Something red” becomes allegorical of Hob's fear of and fascination with the unknown as he transitions to adulthood.

One of the aspects that brought this story to life was the beautifully detailed renderings of the characters' surroundings. Nicholas breathes life into the world he creates via the elaborate details he provides. He also clearly did an enormous amount of research, and his love of the time period imbues his descriptions with a palpable combination of magic and familiarity. Nicholas' style is almost cinematographic in the depth of its visual detail. The characters' surroundings are described in so much depth that they become characters and entities in themselves. One particular moment, when Hob's senses are alive to potential attack and the entire world seems to grow silent, stood out for me. Nicholas perfectly captures that sense of inner stillness, of the world holding its breath, despite the ongoing mundane conversations that continue around Hob. I almost felt as though I could hear the faint breathing of the ox and the droning of one of the pilgrims as my ears strained to capture the whispers of danger around me.

Compared to the landscapes, the characters themselves felt curiously incomplete to me, rough sketches in an immersive and exquisitely painted landscape. Much of the narrative and description is provided by the third-person limited narrator, who, although ostensibly from Hob's perspective, does not precisely channel Hob's thoughts. Instead, the point of view is more distant, clearly telling the story to those removed from the environment. When the surroundings are described, the narrator often provides details about standard practices of the time, such as cleaning the rushes on the floor of the Great Hall during feasts. These details help to provide the wonderful lifelike realism of Nicholas' world, but in some sense detract from a feeling of closeness to Hob, since they are clearly outside of both his current experiences and his thoughts. Most of the action and narrative is provided from this third perspective, and in fact there is surprisingly little dialogue between characters. Often, I was told of Hob's thoughts or provided with summaries of conversations rather than experiencing the conversations themselves. This distanced me from the characters, for I could not hear them speak and was not privy to the details and quirks that would bring them to life. Robert, a knight that the travellers encounter and who is encumbered with a troublesome horse, is one of the most vocal characters. His dialogue and comedic antics with the horse made him, for me, one of the most rounded characters in the story.

However, the personalities I could glimpse in the characters were interesting. Molly, in particular, stood out to me, for she completely defies the standard fantasy female tropes. Although attractive, she was not given unearthly beauty; instead, she is comfortably padded and of ripe years. Formidable in both intellect and skills, she is easily the match of all the men she encounters. She defies the current religious ethics by continuing to contact and be guided by the old gods of Ireland, and it is her will which guides the actions of the others.

Overall, Something Red is a great read for anyone looking for a unique story that defies the standard fantasy tropes. The story provides a window into a beautifully researched and detailed world of the thirteenth century, with an edge of the supernatural so closely tied to historical folklore that does not feel out of place or contrived. Something Red is the perfect novel to pick up for a poetic, deep, haunting, and immersive journey.

I received this as an ebook from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, Inc., via NetGalley.