Brimstone by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Cherie Priest wrote one of my all-time favorite books in Maplecroft--the story of the infamous Lizzie Borden wielding her axe against slithery, slimy Lovecraftian horrors. Besides her real-life heroine, Priest wove an exquisite tapestry of real people and places.
Now she's done it again with this book.
Brimstone is set in the real-life town of Cassadaga, Florida, the "Psychic Capital of the World," according to Wikipedia, and features its actual founding father, George Colby. (Although I doubt very much that gentleman really ran up against the hateful, witch-hunting, firestarting revenant pictured here.) The town is a character in itself, capturing the sights and smells and sticky subtropical heat of Florida wonderfully. (It sure doesn't make me want to live there, even before we get into the alligators and hurricanes.) Our two protagonists are Alice Dartle and Tomas Cordero, a budding medium and World War I veteran respectively. Alice heads to Cassadaga to liberate herself from her family, to stand on her own two feet and explore her psychic abilities:
I have some money, some education, and some very unusual skills--and I intend to learn more about them before I wear anybody's ring. If nothing else, I need to know how to explain myself. Any true love of mine would have questions. Why do I see other people's dreams? How do I listen to ghosts? By what means do I know which card will turn up next in a pack--which suit and which number will land faceup upon a table? How do I use those cards to read such precise and peculiar futures? And pasts?
I don't know, but I am determined to find out.
Tomas Cordero, on the other hand, is a damaged man, still trying to cope with his return from the war and the death of his wife.
It never gets easier to say her name, but with practice and habit I can make it sound effortless. I can make it sound like I've fully recovered, scarcely a year since I came home from the front and they told me she was dead from the flu. She was buried in a grave with a dozen others, on the outside of town. Perhaps it was this grave, in this place--or maybe it was that grave, in some other quarter. No one was certain. So many graves had been dug, you see. So many bodies has filled them up, as fast as the shovels could dig. The whole world was crisscrossed with trenches and pits, at home and abroad. If the dead were not felled by guns, then they were swept away by illness.
It was just as well that I went to war. There was no safety in staying behind.
But when Tomas Cordero came back from the war, he brought something with him. Something dark and full of hate, that starts setting fires in the town where he lives. Something that Alice Dartle sees in her dreams. And when Tomas goes to Alice for help, he takes this something along with him, and unleashes it on Cassadaga.
Tomas and Alice tell this story in alternating first-person viewpoint chapters. A writer has to have a good handle on her characters to pull this off, and Priest succeeds admirably. I particularly liked the fact that there was no romantic relationship between her two protagonists (though there is a hint of romance at the very end, between Alice and someone else). This allows both Tomas and Alice to have their own backstories, desires, and agency, and doesn't cast either one as dependent on the other or on their relationship for their presence in the narrative. Establishing both these people takes up a bit of space at the beginning of the book, which some readers might view as slow. I thought both characters were interesting enough that I didn't mind, and in any case when Tomas gets to Cassadaga the book picks up.
In the end, this is a story about the power of love, and community, against the power of hate. It is a thoroughly delightful tale.
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