“Marked with the serpent as agents of betrayal.”: Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Published by Strange Chemistry, the fledgling YA imprint of Angry Robot Books, Blackwood is Gwenda Bond’s debut novel. If this is the quality of Strange Chemistry’s novels going forward, I’d say they’re set to be a success: as a debut, Blackwood isn’t half bad.

(Spoilers follow.)

In the late 16th century, one hundred and fourteen people disappeared from the island of Roanoke. The “Lost Colony” has passed into historical myth and mystery, a story for the tourists. But when one hundred and fourteen people go missing overnight on modern Roanoke Island, it seems the old mystery may be closer than anyone realised. Seventeen-year-old Miranda Blackwood, misfit daughter of the town drunk, and Phillips Rawling, the juvenile delinquent son of the town’s police chief who hears ghosts, find themselves at the centre of the new mystery. Eluding federal agents and long-dead alchemists, their only hope is to uncover their relationship to the historical Lost Colony in time to save today’s Missing Persons — not only the missing, but the whole island; not only the island, but maybe the world.

Blackwood offers a lot to like. The prose is breezy and witty by turns, with a definite authorial voice. It carries you along, unobtrusive without being bland, maintaining a pacey, urgent tension from the moment the missing persons are revealed to be missing. Miranda Blackwood’s conflicted relationship with her father is real and human, rather than cliché. Very early on in the course of events, she learns he’s been murdered, and her reaction combines relief and heartbreak: she loved him, but now she doesn’t have to take care of him anymore.

She’s also a geek who swears with frak, which I alternated between finding overdone and annoying, and validating for my girlish admiration of all things early-season BSG.

Phillips Rawling is likewise interesting; prankster and car thief, his father calls him home from school because Police Chief Rawlings hopes that his son’s predilection for hearing ghosts might help solve the disappearances. Once back on the island, though, Phillips makes straight for Miranda, convinced she’s in danger. His authority-defying ways make it hard for his parents to protect him — and they do try, especially when it starts to look like the forces of history are pushing Miranda and Phillips onto opposite sides.

About those forces of history…

Spoilers! (I’m warning you.)

It turns out that John Dee, the famous 16th-century astrologer, hatched a plot to pack the original Roanoke colony with alchemists, who were to create an instrument that could make Dee and his followers immortal. This didn’t come off so well the first time around, but now possessing the body of Miranda’s dead father, and with acolytes to assist him, Dee means to complete his great work and acquire both immortality and earthly power.

It is here that Blackwood stumbles. A brisk, breezy read on first glance, the plot involving John Dee is convoluted and full of lacunae that don’t stand up to closer examination. While I confess I’m fiercely picky when I come across the alchemist/astrologer/mathematician in fiction, and while Dee was an ardent proponent of British expansionism, the chronology of his life mandates against any but the most cursory of involvements in the Roanoke expeditions. The founding of the original Roanoke colonies and their destruction/disappearance took place between 1584 and 1590: from 1583 to 1589, John Dee and Edward Kelley were travelling on the continent, enjoying the patronage of aristocrats in Poland and the Holy Roman Empire. (Dee was shopping for a more interested patron than Elizabeth I, but by 1587, Kelley had begun to eclipse his former mentor. Dee eventually returned to England without him, finding that his library had been ransacked by a mob in his absence. He was to die in poverty sometime during the winter of 1608/9.) And Dee’s well-attested Christian piety (though it took some odd forms, and his dream of reunifying Protestant and Catholic theologies was doomed from the outset) makes him, to my mind at least, a strange fit for the role of murderous devil.

Leaving aside matters of chronology, the sad fact is that Dee’s plot makes little sense. (The outlines of it also bear little relationship to alchemy as it was practised during the 16th century, but that may be beside the point.) Functionally, he’s a modern-day Dark Lord: his scheme doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just there to provide a threat that drives our protagonists to act. But when our protagonists, Miranda and Phillips, come face to face with the resurrected John Dee, Blackwood’s pace starts to stagger. The final third of the novel is noticeably uneven, and the conclusion is made of rather less awesome than I was hoping for.

But I’m judging Blackwood against the highest standards of the field. First-novel teething trouble aside — which I beg leave to doubt any fourteen-year-old will much notice — it’s a brisk, entertaining read. A very promising debut: I look forward to seeing what Gwenda Bond does next.

Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. In her spare time, she reads different books.


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