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WesternSFA


Brimstone
by Cherie Priest
Ace, $16.00, 336pp
Published: April 2017

Having devoured her 'Clockwork Century' novels, from 'Boneshaker' to 'Fiddlehead' (click here for review), it surprises me quite a lot to realise that I haven't yet read any of Cherie Priest's other books, especially as I have a few of them sitting here in my signed bookcases. Well, it's about time, so here's her new one: 'Brimstone', which was released in April. It's entirely separate from any of her established series thus far and it works so well as a standalone that I doubt it will begin a new one. It could, relatively easily, but it doesn't need to.

We're in 1920 and we're about to spend exactly a month in Florida, where Priest was born and raised. We follow a pair of very different characters, alternating chapters between them to build a coherent story that needs both of their perspectives to work.

One is Alice Dartle, a young lady from Virginia who has a talent for clairvoyance, perhaps because of her family's heritage; many generations ago, ancestors were burned at the stake for witchcraft. However, her parents are Methodist and she needs a different, more supportive environment, so she travels to a spiritualist town named Cassadaga in Florida in search of, well, her place in the world, her purpose. She describes herself offhand at one point as 'fiercely anxious' and it's a very appropriate description as this story builds.

She's also drawn spiritually by a man who dreams of fire, a mystery that she can't explain but is driven to find a solution to. And, of course, that's our other focal point, Tomás Cordero, who's not that far away, in Ybor City, also in Florida. He's a tailor, relatively open to the future (he has an Edison cabinet that doesn't yet receive any stations) but he's haunted by the past, particularly the death of his beloved wife, Evelyn, while he was away fighting for his adopted country in the Great War.

He knows fire well, the Livens device he wielded in wartime being a flame projector, an early form of the flamethrower we know today. It's not hard to imagine the trauma that would be inflicted on someone of calm and decent manner by using such a device on living human beings, but he's convinced that the little fires that have been springing up around him are Evelyn's work, as she attempts to communicate with him from the other side. Why, he has no idea, but he torments himself with the thought that she might be in Hell, even though she was a good person who would have no reason to be there.

Of course, these two stories gradually weave closer and closer together. Alice finds a home in Cassadaga, where she's welcomed, even though her readings may have brought something else to town, something dangerous that isn't remotely as welcome. The fires around Tomás get progressively worse, to the point where they start to endanger him and those around him. His neighbour dies in a house fire, so he acquires her pet dog, his sole companion as he escapes Ybor City so as not to hurt anyone else he cares about.

Where it all goes is fascinating. The explorations of clairvoyance in fiction that I've read tend to fall into two categories: the most common is where the talented are really fakers, usually in pulp horror yarns or exotic adventure stories; the others are real, but usually only in ghost stories. This is something else again, an intriguingly different novel conjured out of familiar cloth. Originality combined with Priest's ever-poetic phrasing and eloquent flow always makes for a fascinating read. I felt that she really found a connection to the material here and that helps her story come to life.

The town of Cassadaga is real and it does indeed contain a large proportion of people with unusual gifts, leading to its description as the 'Psychic Capital of the World'. In fact, it was founded by a trance medium called George P. Colby, who was sent to Florida by a spirit guide, an Indian named Seneca, where he built a spiritualist community he named after a town in New York. The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association received its charter in December 1894 and Colby signed the deed a month later. Priest clearly spent a good deal of time there and she thanks the town in her acknowledgements.

I can see why she was drawn to Cassadaga, just as Alice Dartle was. It's a fascinating location, especially in a 1920s setting. The non-denominational pastor, Dr. J. A. Floyd, is a woman and that's not something that would have worked outside such a novel as this. It works here, because most of the residents were looking, like Alice, for something different to what they knew everywhere else, so we expect it to follow different rules to the rest of the country. I should add that being a magnet for those seeking such a place also makes for a very tolerant environment, again refreshing for the period, especially in the south.

Priest takes her time establishing this novel, so it's initially careful and thoughtful but it gradually escalates until our characters are engulfed in very polite action. The escalation is handled very well indeed, crafted as it is through not one story but two, which gradually become one, as forces conspire to persuade Tomás Cordero to travel to Cassadaga in search of the woman who is already in search of him.

Priest writes cleverly as the two stories get closer together. Chapters twelve and thirteen, the former told from Tomás's perspective and the latter from Alice's, are neat echoes of each other, all the way down to a set of repeated or very similar lines. Priest's previous standalone novel, 'I am Princess X' mixed prose and graphic novel styles within the same book and I couldn't help but imagine these chapters in a comic book mindset, with alternating panels and overtly mirrored narration. What follows in chapter fourteen is also something absolutely perfect for comic book adaptation.

There's very little to dislike here, though 'Brimstone' has a much slower and more sedate flow than early masterpieces like 'Boneshaker' and especially 'Dreadnought' and its world is much more focused. The characters are enticing, their town still more so. The story takes its time to come together but deliberately so and it builds well. There are scenes of power and majesty and others of quiet impact. Throughout it all, Priest's prose, as ever, is a joy, though this is a notably different read to anything in the 'Clockwork Century' series.

Whether or not she revisits Cassadaga for a second novel with Alice Dartle and Tomás Cordero, I'm happy that we have one and it works well on its own. It's recognisably Cherie Priest but it's different from what I've read of hers before and that tells me that I really should get round to her Cheshire Red books and her Eden Moore series. I should especially track down the Borden Dispatches, which seem to have garnered her the best press she's had since the days of 'Boneshaker' and 'Dreadnought'. So many books, so little time. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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