Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Review: Spirit Houses by Die Booth

Alright, alright, let's come clean. This blog is officially on hiatus until August at least, but probably September. There are reasons but they are too dull to go into here.

Instead, I cite the bit of Twitter logic that brings me crawling back for a brief visit - if you like a book by an independent author, review it. A few weeks ago, I was recommended Die Booth's Spirit Houses, and my word, did I like it.

 A romping, almost steam-punk adventure following Manda Connor and her fellow Field Nurses in the D.P.M - the Department of Paranatural Medicine - it does not rely over-much on the apparatus of non-functional gears and eldritch threats, being instead driven by engaging and entertaining characters.
 It is a novel that quickly gives one the impression of being cast into a much larger world, so lush and fully realised are the premise and setting. Booth does not expend excess words upon world-building or set-up, but the detail of vision is constantly revealed by the plot. It's almost disconcerting how thoroughly built and convincing this alternative England is - the mental space it occupies feels more like a beloved film series, or long running television show than a novel. It seems so much bigger than it is; there is so much richness here, I sometimes felt the need to pace myself - although that may just have been the fact that I was screen-reading.

In tone cosy, the narrative and characters had an almost YA feel to them, something enhanced by both the institutional setting of the D.P.M, and the '20s pastiche of the setting - there is no sex, or language stronger than 'damn' - but there is a poise and maturity of theme that is reminiscent of Lanni Taylor. For all the tenderness with which the characters are painted, as a reader you worry about them. They are breakable, things may not turn out okay. And you want for it it turn out okay.

Naturally, it isn't flawless. If you have an issue with head-hopping (which I think is unfairly maligned, but each to their own) this is not the novel for you. Likewise the prose, while generally light and witty with moments of real beauty, sometimes loses itself in descriptors which grate - the characters do a lot of eye rolling. The opening chapters are also somewhat stilted, something not helped by the initial construction of Manda's character and the suggestion of a love-triangle surrounding her. However, Spirit Houses quickly finds its stride, and its protagonist's mixture of naïveté and passion soon create a heroine who is more than a cipher for events, or an idealised reader-insert. Spirit Houses is a novel about identity, about the choices we make and the people that we have to be to make them. 

It is here that Spirit Houses finds its strength. Characters are revenants, werewolves, displaced souls. They make deals with demons, lie, manipulate their friends. But these issues do not define them; they are merely facets of personality, burdens to be borne, actions of necessity. This is a compassionate novel, and is written from a standpoint empathetic with otherness. Characters are outsiders: the slow, hard-working Ray who refuses to take advantage of his privileged background; the brilliant, cold Daniel proving his genius despite the handicap of his working class roots; genial, foppish Alex inciting the ire of the more conventionally masculine and, of course, Manda herself, battling the prejudice she faces at her lycanthropy, desperate for a place in the world.With astute political awareness, Booth weaves these personal struggles into the wider world of the D.P.M, its language of respect and patient consent offering a kinder and more intelligent picture of the integration of the para-natural than I am used to seeing. 

I would hold this book up against Glen Duncan's brash and unconvincing The Last Werewolf as an example of what existence on the fringes of acceptability really looks like - not bloodbaths and 'gut-wrenching' last stands against cartoon villains as part of the great journey of the Virile White Man™ - but as the slow weight of judgement, the fight for dignity and health, for a normal life.

Well worth your time.