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The Hawley Book of the Dead
by Chrysler Szarlan
Ballantine Books; $26; 332pp
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
This is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read since The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. It is rich, evocative, wonderfully eccentric and wonderfully compelling.

In her debut novel, Szarlan has constructed a tale about Revelation “Reve” Dyer who is married to a stage magician named Jeremy and the two have been doing shows in their own theater in Las Vegas as illusionists named “The Amazing Maskelynes.” They are moderately famous and love their life. They are the parents of twin fifteen-year-olds, Grace and Fai, and ten-year-old Caleigh.

Their lives are fine until one fateful show---Reve shoots Jeremy during one of their acts; except  the bullet which should be a blank isn’t and kills him.

There is no motive for Reve to kill Jeremy and based on the words of the ancient stage manager---who is found bound and gagged in an abandoned hotel far from the theater---someone else substituted the bullets.

Once their affairs are set in order and Jeremy is buried, Reve and her girls and their horses go back east to Massachusetts. They settle in the empty town of Hawley Five Corners and live in one of the abandoned homes there at the behest of Reve’s grandmother Nan who trains birds of prey. Grandmother feels they will be safer there as it is a part of their heritage.

The women of Reve’s family all harbor magic. They all have special skills. Reve’s is disappearing. Literally. And reappearing at will. Reve can trace her family line back to ancient Ireland. It is here  at the edge of the Hawley Forest that Reve must confront her true nature, the true nature of the Dyer women and how their powers and their history have haunted them for centuries, especially the women named Revelation.

The Hawley Book of the Dead is a very magical grimoire that on first look has blank pages—but then---suddenly stories appear. Journal entries from a hundred years ago. A description of what The Fetch---the creature responsible for Jeremy’s death that is doggedly on the trail of Reve and her girls---is thinking and doing. Past stories of her grandmother’s life.

It can and does tell past, present and possible futures on its pages.

The characters Szarlan has created are rich and full. Their dialogue is excellent and I loved the setting. As the magic of her ancestors becomes more real—Reve’s very soul is tested when her twin girls go missing;  like the five girls in the 1920s (and actually a whole town) who just up and disappeared never to be see again - except for one girl. This girl reappears as if nothing and no time had passed since she and her friends entered the forest. The story of what was really happening in the Five Corners is more fantastic than even Reve, with her abilities can imagine.

The Tuatha De Danann (the Irish fae) play an import part in this book as does the plane of their existence, Tir na nOg.

And during all this chaos, Reve reconnects with her old (and first) love Jolon, who is now the town sheriff and is part of the extreme manhunt for the missing twins. Set in autumn—this is a perfect read for this time of year!

My one caveat: I HATE the title of the book.  For me, it’s very misleading. This is not a horror tale, there are no undead folks in its pages, just mystery and some very creepy and magic. Granted it deals with Reve’s ancestors who are dead—but everyone’s ancestors are dead. Something like “The Book of Telling” or even “The Scent of Lilacs” would be better than “The Hawley Book of the Dead.” It almost put me off reading this as I don’t like horror much.

Nevertheless, Szarlan should be proud of such an outstanding debut novel.  This book was just a joy to read---and the first in a projected four book series. ~~ Sue Martin

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