Book Review - Deadmarsh Fey by Melika Dannese Lux
A dark fantasy/horror set in 19th century England with some decidedly dastardly things happening to children!
Owain Deadmarsh grabbed a knife, stalked into the woods, and murdered his wife!
Ok, so I’m a little weird. Sometimes when I read a book, I like to surround myself with sounds, smells, and tastes of the time period. I rationalize this behavior to myself by thinking that this will help immerse and engross me in the tale even more, allowing it to expand beyond reading to encompass several more senses beyond sight. So, in several sessions during my reading of Deadmarsh Fey, I listened to a lot of classical music (not that that’s a stretch), smoked a couple of cigars by the firepit, had bangers & mash, drank bourbon and brandy from tumblers & snifters, and had a whiskey/tobacco scented candle burning sporadically. Ok, truth be told, NONE of those are a stretch or are too far left of the norm for me, BUT…I did them MORE while reading the book. I can’t say if they immersed me in the tale more than I would have already been…but damn! It sure made the whole experience even more enjoyable!
So, now that that’s out the way, I can get on to the review proper. Oh! But before that, I have a preliminary little heads up;
Disclaimer – I was offered a copy of this book in exchange for a fair & honest review. Receiving a copy of the novel has not biased my review in any way.
Ok, now that THAT’S done, I can truly get on to the review. For reals this time!
As with all of my reviews, I will attempt to avoid spoilers whenever possible. Given that this book is incredibly plot heavy, this will be a difficult endeavor. But given all the care and attention to detail that Melika Lux has put into this tale, it would be a huge disservice to her to let any cats out of any proverbial bags. So, if it’s not mentioned in the official book synopsis, I will do my level best to avoid mentioning it here. Also, in line with my other reviews, you will not get oblique statements or a half-constructed “I liked it”. The author put care into crafting the story, and I will reciprocate in kind.
Deadmarsh Fey, aside from the other qualities it has, possesses a certain sense of…age. Even though it’s not a Victorian horror, it shares some of the general characteristics. Even though it’s not written in the prose of those bygone years, it still firmly resides in that timeframe, and conveys the sense of it just fine. It may not have the prose, but it evokes the spirit of the age with some of the word choices, cultural references, and the atmosphere. You just don’t come across stories like this too often anymore, and I feel that had Melika Lux been alive during those times, she would have caused quite a stir with her sensational and dreadful tales.
"I've known more than my fair share of sadists in short trousers, Kip, I can tell you. Just because a fellow's a child, doesn't mean his soul's lily white."
While reading Deadmarsh Fey I had quite a few other reading obligations, from personal endeavors to local book club selections, so there were moments where I was under the gun and felt like skimming through sections of the book. But, at the end of the day, I wanted to give Melika Lux’s creation a 100% fair shake, so anytime I was reading it, I made sure it had my full attention. So while it took me a while to finish the book, this is by no means a poor reflection on Deadmarsh Fey itself. Yes, it is an incredibly detailed novel, one that will require complete attention from the reader, but the long period of actually finishing the novel was entirely because of my own convoluted schedule.
"I don't know how else to explain this, but I could feel her age, almost as if the weight of her years were pressing against me like a great mountain of corpses that would collapse onto me if I so much as looked at her the wrong way."
Though it is a single POV, third person affair, Deadmarsh Fey is very deceptive, as it is chock full of characters, both heroes and ne’er-do-wells. So much so that it feels like it expands beyond the scope of a single character's viewpoint. Some of this is because there is quite a bit of exposition, and some of it is simply because of the large cast. And I mean LARGE cast. Casual readers will have one hell of a time with this book, in part because of the high count of characters. And, on top of the sheer number of personalities, many of them are known by several names, depending on who is addressing them. Friends may call them one thing (which may or may not be their given name), while enemies may call them something else entirely. It reminds me a bit of A Song of Ice and Fire in that regard, where many of the characters had multiple names, nicknames, and official titles. Each of the nicknames or titles in this book are explained, but sometimes it happens on the sly, so readers really need to be paying attention! I generally pride myself on being able to keep up on “who’s who in the zoo”, but I will totally admit to being a little lost sometimes with who was related to who, and whose nickname belonged to whom. I imagine that Melika has this huge and convoluted family tree taped to one of her walls, like a crime scene in some serial killer thriller, with all sorts of colored string crisscrossing the whole thing, each color signifying some obscure tie, event, or other relation beyond blood. I imagine that it causes her houseguests no small amount of discomfort and distrust. And I am aware that, in assuming THAT level of detail, I am essentially elevating Ms. Lux to Bond villain status. So be it. Hey, she even has a Bond villain name!
Whoever had given that thing to Travers must have been pretty cracked himself. Thinking you could cage the rock in a bit of gold work to make it beautiful was just about as stupid as believing you could dress up a tarantula in a tiara.
So…yeah, back to the single POV character discussion. Roger Knightley is not what I would call a traditional hero in a tale such as this. As a boy who has not yet turned 11, he is small in both stature AND experience. But, that said, this is 19th century England we are talking about here, where children (especially children beyond the standard means) were vigorously educated and expected to comport themselves like little adults. So it’s not inaccurate to say that he’s more mature than an 11 year old from the 21st century. Since he is so young, he meets each new circumstance or event with a varying range of emotions and outlooks. Sometimes he’s brave and stands tall, sometimes he’s enfeebled with fear, and many times he’s simply confused or overwhelmed. Which makes sense, as Deadmarsh Fey is chock full of extraordinary circumstances, stuff that would make even hardened adults crumble. Poor little Roger can barely catch his breath before the next horrific revelation. All I can say is that this kid’s gonna need some serious therapy after this series is done. But he’s a scrappy lad, our Roger, and I rather enjoyed my time spent with him. I liked the fact that there were things he could figure out on his own, and things that he couldn’t, as befitting his age. He had just the right amount of earnestness, sarcasm, and wit to make him endearing, but not so much that it rang false or became annoying or overwrought. He also grows a bit during this novel, even though the narrative really only takes place over the course of a few days. I’m always more invested in characters who show actual growth, or have an actual arc, during a story.
As mentioned above, there are numerous supporting characters in Deadmarsh Fey. From Roger’s cousin Havelock aka Lockie (very central to the narrative), his cousin Travers (also pivotal), and his valet (and former bare-knuckle boxer) Bellows, to various other allies and acquaintances, this book is not lacking for a cast of characters. Sadly, many of these characters can’t really be mentioned in any sort of detail without heading into potential spoiler territory. That said, I’m very excited to meet Iso in the next book, as she seems like a fun impish counterpoint to Roger’s occasional stick-in-the-mud shtick.
"You're too young to have rheumatism." "You're never too young to suffer."
On the villain front, Melika Lux has provided Roger a worthy rogue’s gallery of antagonists, though some are more effective than others. Regardless of how effective a villain they are or are not, they are all incredibly threatening to our young hero and his cohorts. Alas, it’s also difficult to talk about the villains without potentially giving away more info than I would like to. Suffice it to say that Deadmarsh Fey has plenty of interesting and dangerous big bads, each seemingly more dastardly and diabolical than the last.
"Need I remind you that some of the worst atrocities in the histories of your world and mine have been committed by mere men?"
I’m self-aware enough to know that I sometimes will judge a book, and the way it’s written, by how I think the author and I would get along hanging out in a not-so-seedy bar late at night. Given the level of sarcasm and wit present in Deadmarsh Fey, I get the impression that Ms. Lux and I would have absolutely zero issues with bantering back and forth. She obviously has a knack for conversation, as the book is filled to the brim with characters engaged in all sorts of banter. Chummy banter amongst pals? Check. Tit-for-tat put-downs between foes? Also check. Devious villain monologues? Also also check. Some of the conversations are delightfully on-point witty thrusts and parries, while some of them are somber and mournful discussions of fate and the price of familial misdeeds. Ms. Lux is also highly descriptive, providing plenty of evocative detail in her settings and events. I think she manages to convey what she sees in her mind pretty effectively to page, which some authors do struggle with. It’s not enough to have a great idea…it’s how well that idea is portrayed and explained that really matters. And in that regard, she nails it. I bet she’d be a lot of fun drunk, trying to elaborate on some obscure point while also trying not to fall over. Oh, and she also has more than a few instances in this book with alliteration. I LOVE alliteration!
But there was no question of his surviving a battle against this panther of prehistoric proportions now.
I can honestly say that this is one of the more detailed books I have yet read. Every narrative thread, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, is accounted for and resolved. I wouldn’t say it’s as dense or requires as much undivided attention as, say, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, but this really isn’t a book you can half-ass your way through. There are so many events taking place in the “now” of the book that are intrinsically tied to historic events, and so many characters that maybe had a hand to play in both those now AND past events, that you’ll get lost quickly if you aren’t paying attention. If you like your books to have some rich history, then you’ve come to the right place. The revelations fly fast and furious here (maybe Bellows is a stand-in for Vin Diesel!?), and sometimes questions get answered that you didn’t even know were questions in the first place. I can’t even begin to imagine just how much work went into making sure every plot-point and contrivance was examined and resolved. It likely involved more than a few late nights, blood sacrifices, and soul-selling.
And, in a nice change of pace, because of the tactics used by the enemy, the people/beings that are supposed to be protecting the likes of Roger and his family are generally just as in the dark as Roger himself. It goes a little like this: “What do we do now Kip? We are good and screwed due to this latest development. How do we make it right?” To which Kip replies, “Dude, how the eff should I know? I’ve been in Wales this whole time!” (Note - Not actual quotes from the book!) It’s kind of refreshing not having some wizened old chap named Sir Deus-Ex-Machina just dropping in and making things too easy.
"There are more things in Heaven and earth..." Uncle Gryffyn muttered. "Now ain't the time to be quotin' old Bill Shakes, guv," Bellows shot in.
There is also a point that I need to make for potential readers. Though this book may start out with a feeling of whimsy and light fantasy, it quickly turns DARK. Like, grimmer than GrimDark dark. And, while I personally like that, some folks don’t. There are quite a few atrocities that are committed in this tale, and many of them are done against children. If you have a hard time with that, then this is likely not the book for you. I lost track of how many times something awful happened, either in the actual continuing plot of the book, or as some past event that directly affects our heroes. And just when you think things can’t get any more dire, or any more grim, Ms. Lux throws another bloody and evil event into the mix. And Roger, poor Roger, is splattered, drenched, or sprayed with blood so often that it’s amazing the he isn’t permanently dyed red.
"Do not make the mistake of thinking present society is so highly advanced that they have forgotten their baser instincts, Roger Knightley. Evil is evil no matter the century, or the world."
By this point, it’s pretty safe to say that I enjoyed Deadmarsh Fey (surprise, I did!). But that’s not to say that I don’t have a few gripes (surprise, I do!).
My biggest gripe is that, for all the great conversation, characters tend to talk a little TOO much. Sometimes it’s just a conversation that went on too long, with too many points re-iterated. But, sometimes it was to the detriment of the action itself. At one point in the tale, Roger stops mid-run (on his way from one crazy happenstance to another) to quip to a carved dragon on a staircase's newel post. Look, I’m all about witty banter, and characters absolutely do need to communicate (I hate it in books, movies, TV shows, etc. where characters have some vital piece of information and simply don’t share it until it’s too late). But during life-or-death struggles is generally not the time for deep meaningful conversations, sustained pun-filled asides, or aha! proclamations to oneself. Nor should deep insightful conversations be happening in the middle of two characters battling each other to the death.
This is how Victor Frankenstein must have felt when his monster woke up, Roger thought crazily. "So it is alive," he said in wonder, but that wonder turned into suspicion when the impossibility of his words sunk in a second later.
Also, there are more than a couple of moments where someone will just appear (protagonist or antagonist), without much explanation as to where they came from. They were somewhere else entirely, or they weren’t even close to the person in question, and then all of sudden they pull a Nightcrawler and just appear. Or some new character will suddenly show up (from who knows where), and then they are actively engaged in the action or are talking to established characters mid-conversation, even though they were just literally introduced a sentence ago and we have no idea who they are. There were a few of these jarring transitions, and it caused me on several occasions to go back and re-read the passages to make sure I didn’t miss something.
Compounding those transitions, there were a few moments where the sense of urgency, established by the characters in the book itself, grinds to a halt due to some conversation or new discovery. At one point, Roger needs to get outside of Deadmarsh mansion in a hurry. He’s on a strict time limit, and another character has made sure he’s aware that time is most assuredly of the essence. But before he goes outside on this time-sensitive endeavor, he pauses to investigate the room of one of the book’s antagonists. And I don’t mean he does a quick glance. I mean he looks through EVERYTHING, but just kind of at leisure, like the world’s more lackadaisical cat-burglar. He goes through drawers and cabinets. He goes through luggage. He looks for false bottoms in said luggage. He reads a multiple page letter found in said luggage. He ponders said multiple page letter. And then, after burgling that room, he stops to investigate some strange happenings in the room next door. Keep in mind that this is all pertinent to the plot, so it’s not fluff. But he’s given such a strict deadline for his outdoor excursion, but then time seems irrelevant when there’s important plot-related stuff to uncover (except when Roger receives a letter directly addressed to him, in which case he just pockets it and say he'll check who it's from later. Ummmm...is this the same kid?). There are a few other instances in the book where time seems rather elastic, and doesn’t flow nearly as fast as it should.
There was only one other point of contention, and it came from the smallest of passages. At one point, one of our supporting characters manages, while chained up, to use his feet to flip a dagger into his mouth and use it to threaten a villain. Keep in mind that this character is certainly no Victorian ninja in disguise...until the story requires him to be. So I was like...NOPE!
But, those nitpicks aside, I really did enjoy my time with Deadmarsh Fey. It’s a wholly unique creation in a time when we are getting WAY too many books with similar characters/plots/settings. And any time an author can create something new, different, and engaging, I have to give major kudos. I have no doubt I will revisit Roger & friends when the next book in the series is released, and I look forward to seeing how Melika Lux hones her craft for future offerings.
"Cursed are those who have seen and still refuse to believe."
4 out of 5 ancient and child-endangering stars!