Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

Robert McCammon was a prolific horror writer before he turned to historical fiction. His Speaks the Nightbird is set in 1699, squeezing it just barely into the century of my greatest interest. In essence, this is a "Who did it?" type of mystery novel set in the Carolinas, in a small town called Fount Royal.

The story begins with the journey of a magistrate and his scribe as they travel through dangerous swamp lands to get into Fount Royal. Their task seems simple: a woman accused of witchcraft has been caught and the entire town is crying out for her execution. However, the magistrate's scribe and the hero of the story, Matthew Corbett, soon gets the idea that the accused woman, Rachel Howarth, might not be entirely guilty of everything that she's accused of. The magistrate views his ideas as products of youthful desires, as the lady in question is rather beautiful. And, as Matthew works to find the truth, he uncovers more secrets that a town so small should be able to have.

The novel contains a fair share of historical detail, such as foodstuffs that people eat, crops that they attempt to grow, beehives used as mosquito deterrents, rat problems and, naturally, a lot of detail of the judicial system of the time. But somehow I was left wanting more. However, the historical details seemed few and far between in all the mystery solving and theorising that the protagonist was engaged in. There are a lot of scenes that events that have the character interacting with the townfolks - finding out who they are and what their role is in the overall story - which sometimes seem non-essential to the plot. Cutting some of these, or paring them down a bit, would have made for a tighter reading.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel, although mystery novels are not generally my thing. The writing is engaging and McCammon really knows how to draw interesting characters. But this is in no way a fast-paced novel. It is for the most part a relaxed walk though a small town and its people, although there are some exciting scenes in the mix.

Very much recommended for any fan of historical fiction.