Tuesday, 12 October 2010

‘A Gathering of Crows’ – Brian Keene

All good things have to come to an end although I’m hoping that this is more of a case of ‘good things coming to an end for now and picking up again at a later date.’ We’ll see...
I haven’t really been able to get to the bottom of all the ‘what’s and whys’ but a little poking around the internet, the other day, led me to find out that Leisure Fiction aren’t publishing their mass market horror fiction anymore (it’s all trade paperback and ebooks). The bottom line is that if you see any their mass market stuff on the shelves then pick it up because once it’s gone... it’s gone.
Apparently, Brian Keene wasn't up for this so has bought back the rights to all of his books from Leisure and is wondering what to do with them all. It’s not so much these books that I’m worried about as it is the ones that haven’t been released yet. Am I ever going to read any more of ‘Entombed’ other than the excerpt at the back of ‘A Gathering of Crows’? On a purely selfish note (and as a fan), I really hope that Brian Keene gets sorted with another publisher and the books start flowing again; he’s worth the read.
Until he signs back in again, Brian Keene has signed out with ‘A Gathering of Crows’ and I can’t think of a higher note to go out on.

Brinkley Springs is a small town on its last legs. Local industry has dried up and now the townspeople are slowly leaving for pastures new; the ones who are left might end up wishing that they had left a lot sooner when night falls...
The darkness brings five strangers to town that aren’t going to leave until either every single living thing in Brinkley Springs is dead or the sun rises the following morning, whichever comes first. They’ve done similar things in other towns for hundreds of years and they’re very good at what they do. For some people, tonight will end quickly in a rush of terror and blood; others will find that they have a fighting chance to make it through until the dawn. Dawn is a long time coming though and the only certainty is death...

When I reviewed ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ earlier this year my feeling was that, as much as I’d enjoyed it, Keene was deliberately not playing to his strengths and this made for a novel that didn’t quite hit the heights that it was aiming for. The good news is that, this time round, Keene goes for the jugular pretty much right from the start and it only gets better from there.

While Keene does build things up nice and slowly, you are never left in any doubt as to the sheer evil that Brinkley Springs faces and the sight of the small town going about its business (not knowing what is about to burst from the shadows) goes some way to showing the reader just what the stakes are. Brinkley Springs may look like just another small American Town but Keene fills it full of characters with real depth, no small undertaking in a book that’s only three hundred and one pages long! You know what’s coming but they don’t and this lends a real edge to proceedings as (if you’re anything like me) you’ll want them all to pull through.
Not all of them do and things can get a little predictable when Keene uses his old trick of giving a minor player a little bit of background detail and then killing them off horribly. There’s a rhythm to these passages that lets you know what’s coming and this can lessen the tension. Keene does make up for this by injecting a raw power into the climatic moments that leaves the reader gasping; it’s not quite ‘Urban Gothic’ but it’s close!

When Keene is done with the scene setting it’s on with the story proper and you’d better make sure that you’re ready to keep up as Keene is in no mood to stop and wait for you!
The story is really flowing now and I loved the way that Brinkley Springs made the transition from having a few isolated screams in the darkness to the protagonists being right up in your face when you least expect it. These guys can really move fast and it’s always a lot faster than you’re expecting. Keene does an amazing job of keeping the five strangers fresh and interesting, simply by not telling us what they’re up to until a lot further into the book. They could be up to anything and this deliberate vagueness (coupled with the violence that they deliver) had the desired affect of my wanting to know just what the hell these people were... In the meantime, I had to settle for just being very scared.

Answers to these questions come in the form of fan favourite Levi Stoltzfus, the ex-Amish Magus with a habit of finding himself in the right place at the wrong time. I say ‘fan favourite’... While Levi has never really been a favourite character of mine I found there was a lot to recommend him this time round. Now, more than ever, Levi is a character who isn’t sure that he has what he takes to defeat this particular menace but goes for it anyway. With an attitude like that you can’t help but root for him, I certainly couldn’t. You also get to find out a little more about his past and I had to look at him in a new light after revelations that aren’t necessarily new (for that type of character) but are delivered with an appropriately sensitive touch.
Best of all though, Levi finally gives us a glimpse of Keene’s ‘Labyrinth’ which is something that fans like me have been waiting for years to get a really good look at. This set of extra-dimensional passageways are not for the faint of heart or the curious and only a madman’s ravings can truly capture the weirdness on the other side of the portal, Keene shows his readers only too well just what this weirdness is made up of (a good dose of Lovecraft but something that is entirely Keene’s own).
Without giving too much away, Levi’s use of the ‘Labyrinth’ is pivotal to the plot and results in scenes that fans are going to love and the casual reader will get a lot out of as well.

‘A Gathering of Crows’ may have been a little flawed in it’s overall execution but it was still a welcome return to what Keene does best and I want more of it. We’ll just have to wait and see if that happens...

Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten

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