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The International Writers Magazine: Review

Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert
Publisher: Bantam Books Ltd (14 Jul 2008)
ISBN-10: 0553818503
ISBN-13: 978-0553818505

Frances Lewis review

An extraordinary Gothic novel, reads the blurb on the inside cover, that takes on big themes – love, death, alchemy, the power of the human mind to transform and transcend reality – and wraps them into a thriller narrative… well, this is partially true. While Mostert’s fourth novel has all the ingredients necessary for a Gothic thriller (black cats, spiders, magic, a big creepy house, murder and mysterious sisters), there’s no escaping that the twenty-first century setting feels like an aberration, an uncomfortably modern overcoat on finely frilled Victorian garb.

Meet the protagonist: Gabriel Blackstone, ace computer hacker and man about town, who at the start of the novel is contacted by an old flame regarding the disappearance of her stepson some weeks ago. Gabriel is called upon especially because he is a ‘remote viewer’ – somebody who can read other people’s minds. He used to be part of a national organisation dedicated to the locating of missing persons, but gave it up because of some terrible tragedy that left him doubting his abilities. The old flame – Frankie, also a remote viewer, though less powerful – is hard to refuse, and Gabriel soon finds himself ‘slamming the ride’ again (an oddly American-sounding phrase for reading a mind that doesn’t get better the more it’s used), in order to find this missing boy. His bizarre visions lead him to the door of the Monk House, a rambling Victorian mansion crumbling quietly away in Chelsea, and home to the aforementioned mysterious sisters, Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk. These ‘exotic creatures’ are somehow linked to the boy’s vanishment, and as Gabriel stumbles deeper under their spell, it soon becomes clear he is dealing with murder instead – but which of the sisters is innocent, and which is the killer?

As the Gothic centre of the novel, the Monk sisters certainly look the part: one red-haired, voluptuous and dreamy-eyed, the other raven-haired and athletic, with a steely gaze. Their house is full of roses and African masks and alchemical paraphernalia. They are socially adept, disgustingly rich and – funnily enough – descended from Doctor John Dee, the sixteenth century mathematician who had a passion for the occult. This passion has ancestrally passed onto the sisters, whose obsession with memory palaces and gnostic transformation ultimately leads them into dangerous territory.

Mostert revels in the detail here, slipping in chunks of deftly researched information that will enthral and confuse the reader in equal measure. This is where the book’s strength lies. As far as the Monk sisters are concerned, as characters they are rounded and interesting with an intriguing history and sparky dynamic. The text comes alive when we get a glimpse into their diary entries – precursors to the early chapters that inexplicably fade halfway in to the story – and it seems a shame that sometimes the action just drifts along, having bypassed them completely.

The weaknesses? Well, as someone who is supposed to be smitten by the Monk sister’s potency, Gabriel never quite convinces the reader of his feelings. It all seems a bit convenient and contrived, so when we are called upon to believe he has fallen in love with one of them, it smacks more of handy narrative thrust than actual emotion. He’s not particularly likeable either; too selfish to sympathise with and a bit arrogant. If he didn’t have his remarkable remote viewing skills it would be difficult to see why the sisters would be interested in him, let alone the reader. And as the story builds, we sense a twist coming, which is disappointing when it does. It’s just not surprising enough. Finally, for a Gothic novel it’s not especially scary. I could do with a bit more darkness and danger, some genuine shocks and thrills. Shifting the setting back a hundred years or so would give the book some atmosphere, maybe; would Victorian sensibilities reacting to the arcane practices of mind-reading and ritual murder lead to much needed tension? A Gothic thriller for modern minds that doesn’t quite fit the genre, perhaps, but an entertaining read all the same.

© Frances Lewis June 21st 2008
frances_lewis at hotmail.com

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Frances Lewis review
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