February 20, 2024

Review: What Feasts at Night

What Feasts at Night What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second novella in the Sworn Soldier series, following the adventures of Alex Easton, a retired soldier of the fictional country of Gallacia in the late 19th century. The previous book, What Moves the Dead, was one of the best books I read a couple of years ago, a takeoff of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." This story features the return of Alex Easton, their traveling companion Angus and the fungal expert/Angus's girlfriend Eugenia Potter, and introduces some delightful new characters, including the grumpy Widow Botezatu and her grandson Bors.

This story is a little longer than the previous one, and veers more towards the supernatural instead of the previous story's SF bent. In this case, the monster is the "moroi," a ghost that comes in the night, sits on your chest, and sucks your breath. The moroi killed the caretaker of Alex's Gallacian lodgehouse, Codrin, and threatens Alex and their friends. Alex throws down against the moroi at the climax, in an extended dream sequence that also weaves in the primary theme of the story: Alex's PTSD (here called "soldier's heart") and how they deal with it.

This backstory of Alex's war experiences was mentioned in the first book, but really brought to the fore here. The characters and their relationships also are more of a driver in this book than the plot. Since we're visiting Alex's home country for the first time, the author provides plenty of vivid descriptions throughout:

Autumn was nearly spent, which meant that many of the trees had lost their leaves. You might think that would mean that the woods had opened up, but if you think that, you have likely never been to Gallacia. Serrated ranks of pine lined the road, with the bare branches of oaks thrusting out between them like arthritic fingers. The sky was the color of a lead slug and seemed barely higher than the trees themselves. Combined with the wagon ruts that left a ridge down the center of the road, I had the unpleasant feeling that I was riding straight down a giant throat.

Alex Easton's droll, relatable voice definitely carries the reader along in this book, along with a wry, matter-of-fact sense of humor that had me laughing out loud at several points:

it probably helped that Miss Potter did not demand English cooking and ate heartily of all the Widow's dishes, passing praise via Angus or myself. The quality of our food improved markedly. It hadn't been bad before, but it had been fairly monotonous. Now we only had paprika sausage for every third meal. (We stole that from the Hungarians, bask when we tried to fight them and they beat us sensless. This is how Gallacia acquired most of its cuisine. The Widow made excellent paprika sausage, but one's bowels do require a few hours to recover now and again.)

We find out a good deal more about Gallacia and its culture along the way. I don't think this book is quite as good, or as frightening, as What Moves the Dead (that book was enough to give anyone nightmares and look askance at mushrooms for a good long while). But the characters are appealing enough to make up for it.

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