Thursday, May 10, 2018

Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 1: Judgment of the Witch - Robert McCammon

    2002; 483 pages.  Full Title: Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 1: Judgment Of The Witch.  Book 1 (or ½), of the 6-book “Matthew Corbett” series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Horror; Mystery; Witches; Suspense; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    The Carolina town of Fount Royal is dying, and everyone who still remains there knows why.

    Yes, people are succumbing left and right to the swamp plague.  So are the animals.  To say nothing of those two murders.  Plus the miserable jungle-like weather that seems to keep the sun from shining, which is ruining the crops.  But all of those things are effects, not causes.

    The cause is “her”.  The witch.  And the sooner she is hanged or burned at the stake – it doesn’t really matter which method is used now, does it? – the sooner the curse that is afflicting Fount Royal will end.

    But the town’s residents are civilized, law-abiding people.  The witch is in jail, and she's entitled to a fair and speedy trial.  It should only take a day at the most, after which she’ll be found guilty and sentenced to death.  So somebody get busy making the stake, chopping the wood, and lighting torches, cuz there’s gonna be a public burning real soon.  All that’s lacking is a judge.

    And he’s on his way from Charles Town.  He should be here any day now.

What’s To Like...
    Speaks The Nightbird – Volume 1: Judgment Of The Witch takes place in 1699, a few years after the onset of the Salem Witch Trials in New England.  The fictional (ANAICT) Fount Royal is a day or two's ride outside of the larger city of Charles Town, now modern-day Charleston, South Carolina. Back in those days there was no “North” or “South” Carolina, it was just the single colony.

    Robert McCammon is first and foremost a writer of the horror genre, but to be honest, I was more transfixed by the historical fiction aspect of Speaks The Nightbird.  When’s the last time you read a book that was set anywhere in American in 1699?  The attention to historical detail here is amazing, with now-archaic things like “toss ‘em boys” (a food), “black flaggers” (pirates), slide groat and wicket (boys’ games in those days), and the Spanish method of rolling tobacco leaves into cigars.

    The horror/mystery/thriller aspect of the book is just as good.  The fundamental question is whether the odd goings-on in Fount Royal are natural or supernatural in origin.  I very much enjoy books that keep you guessing about this.  Preston & Child employ the same motif in their Agent Pendergast series, and I’m a fan of them, too.

    I was impressed by the character development.  Our protagonist, Matthew Corbett, a young clerk and the assistant to the magistrate, is a fascinating study.  But the other major characters – the witch, the magistrate, Fount Royal’s founder, et al. – are also interesting people to meet and get to know.  As for the baddies, well, I can’t tell you anything about them because, other than Exodus Jerusalem (who may be more of a shyster than a baddie), they haven’t been identified yet.  More on this in a bit.

    The detailed descriptions conveyed to me a real “feel” for life in America in 1699.  I still haven’t figured out who-or-what “Jack One-Eye” is, but the “toss ‘em boys” food was explained on page 83, ditto for the enigmatic title on page 459.  I chuckled at the medicinal smoking of hemp on page 265; it is a rare treat to encounter some subtle humor in a horror story.  I also liked the chess game on page 193.  My only quibble is the assertion that Matthew’s first move was with one of his knights.  While not impossible, it would be rare for either player making their first move with anything but a pawn in 1699.  Still, Matthew says he was self-taught, so perhaps that explains his odd choice.

    The trial (technically. a hearing) begins on page 219.  The testimony against the accused witch is compelling; even Matthew is forced to admit that.  There is a lot of cussing and explicit sex, so you probably don't want little Tommy or Suzy reading this book.  None of the threads are tied up, but the book ends at a suitably-chosen spot.

Kewlest New Word...
Toss ‘em Boys (n.; phrase) : greasy roast chicken, so named because of the manner in which the fowl is caught.  Google it..
Others : Caliginous (adj.); Sippet (n.).

    “Alice Barrow has taken to bed as well.”
    “Alice Barrow?”  Bidwell turned from the window to face the other man.  “Is she ailing?”
    “I had cause to visit John Swaine this morning,” Winston said.  “According to Cass Swaine, Alice Barrow has told several persons that she’s been suffering dreams of the Dark Man.  The dreams have so terrified her that she will not leave her bed.”
    Bidwell gave an exasperated snort.  “And so she’s spreading them like rancid butter on scones, is that it?”
    “It seems to be.”  (pg. 57)

    “How old are you?”
    “Twenty years.”
    “Have you always been so curious?”
    “Yes,” he answered.  “Always.”
    “From what I saw today, the magistrate doesn’t appreciate your curiosity.”
    Matthew said, “He appreciates the truth.  Sometimes we arrive at it from different routes.”  (pg. 281)

“Better the company of wolves than the cryin’ of saints.”  (pg. 29)
   Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 1 is not a standalone story, despite being 28 chapters and 483 pages long.  Normally I’d carp about that, but in researching this book, I discovered that if you pick this up new nowadays, you’ll find it to be 800+ pages in length, and is actually Volumes 1 and 2 combined.  That includes the e-book version.

   So it appears I have a very early edition of the book (the publisher is Pocket Books).  Indeed, the blurb in the back exhorts the reader to be sure not to miss Speaks The Nightbird, Volume 2: Evil Unveiled, which is/was "coming out next month”.
    Which means the only thing I have left to quibble about is the Wikipedia entry for Robert McCammon.  It really needs to be updated and fleshed out a bit.  The author has issued at least one more book since the Wikipedia article was last updated.

    9 Stars.  Frankly, if the only thing I can gripe about is the author’s Wikipedia page, you just know I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  Highly recommended, and that's from someone who doesn’t read much in the horror genre.  My OCD will demand that I read “Volume 2” at some point in the near future.

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