Cherie Priest is perhaps best known for her Hugo- and Nebula-nominated Clockwork Century series—a bombastic steampunk explosion of alternate history America, air pirates, and zombie epidemics. It’s fun with a capital F. It’s also a far cry from her latest novel, Brimstone, which trades airships for clairvoyants and chihuahuas, and the threat of toxic gas for more personal demons. It’s not a departure for Priest, as it piggybacks off of Priest’s unrelated 2016 novel, The Family Plot—a similarly haunting portrait of Americana—but it is another feather in her cap, as she continues to prove herself one of the most versatile writers of American speculative fiction.
Alice Dartle is a young clairvoyant, newly arrived to Cassadaga, Florida (an honest-to-goodness town of clairvoyants in Florida), where she is seeking training and hoping to find a welcoming community in a world that is still reeling from war. Tomás Cordero, a skilled and passionate tailor, has returned from the front lines of World War I to a home that he no longer recognizes—his wife is dead, and mysterious fires follow him wherever he goes. Alice and Tomás are linked by dreams of fire, a masked man, and a shadow who calls himself “the hammer.”
“Who are you?” I asked one last time. I scarcely had the wherewithal to form each short word, but I did, and he heard me—this huge dark thing, this terrible ash-covered beast, he heard me.
He responded in a voice that was made of a forest on fire, in a voice that was made of everyone on earth who ever lived, screaming and dying.
I am the hammer.
Priest shows a fondness for humour and levity that often cuts through Brimstone‘s otherwise dark themes and events. In particular, the chapters told through Alice’s eyes are amusing and full of genuine laughs. Alice, a bourbon-drinking youngster with enough drive and determination to motivate even the most jaded reader, is an open book (well, everyone is an open book in a town of clairvoyants) who makes friends easily. She quickly becomes the glue that binds Brimstone together.
“Did you know,” [Alice] went on, “that spiritualists are teetotalers? They don’t drink or smoke, or anything.”
“Is that so?”
“That’s what they say in public, but no, not really. Candy has a speakeasy in the back, where you can drink what you want and smoke if you like. But a lot of them live as clean as they can, to which I can only say, “Good for them.” As for me, I like a nightcap without any judgement, thank you very much. Apparently you can only get one of those on this side of the tracks.”
Moreover, she’s a proactive protagonist who, by her inquisitive and demanding nature, effortlessly propels the plot forward. It’s fun to spend time at her side, and, even when you know she’s charging full bore into trouble, you’re always rooting for her (safely from the sidelines, of course). Tomás is equally driven, though the majority of his challenges happen internally, though at a point he can no longer ignore how they’re affecting his loved ones.
I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that this is a bright novel—but it is a hopeful one. Tomás is besieged by his demons—a spiritual manifestation of the post traumatic stress disorder he suffers from after soldiering in World War I. His efforts to come to grips with his new life are heartbreaking. Priest does a good job of showing that though it is a huge part of his emotional journey, Tomás is not defined solely by his PTSD. Through all of this, though, Tomás never wavers in his belief that he can be healed—even if it is fueled by delusions of being reunited with his dead wife.
The contrast and balance between these two characters is Brimstone‘s biggest success. Through Alice’s unwavering desire to belong and Tomás’s insular fight against his demons, they each offer a glimpse of what it’s like to be a fish out of water. On the surface, they each exhibit signs of being unlikable—Tomás is brooding and sloughs off responsibility; Alice is naive and sometimes petulant—but they rise above this, and in some cases even subvert those characteristics to use them as a way to foster reader empathy. Like all great characters, Alice and Tomás are flawed, layered, and complex—and that makes them interesting. Theirs is a story about healing and hope, and how community and belief can come together in support of a broken individual.
Any oversized sense of darkness, fire, or a masculine presence these sensitive folks in Cassadaga may sense around me … it’s only the war. It’s only the charred, melted baggage that I brought back with me. At worst, they sense perhaps a faint and lonely soldier or two, rendered ghostly by the great Livens machine. Maybe that.
Nothing darker, or worse. Nothing I can’t live with. Nothing I didn’t create myself.
Brimstone‘s emotional highs never quite hit the level that I want from something I consider truly outstanding—it’s more about the slow-burn build-up of emotional complexity—though the final scene of the climax comes close. Rather, it’s more about the layered and growing relationships that exist between Alice, Tomás, and their friends. The novel’s central mystery works well as a means to an end, but I was most invested as a reader during the quieter moments—the “everyday” stuff, like when Alice is trying to talk her way out of a lecture, or Tomás is discussing tailoring with colleagues. Luckily, thanks to sharp dialogue and a great sense for narrative rhythm and pace, Priest succeeds at interweaving these moments throughout the main plot. A lot of this is thanks to the novel’s central setting, Cassadaga, being a character of its own.
“Its a tad… odd…,” said the policeman. “But everyone seems very nice.”
“That’s Cassadaga in a nutshell!” I said cheerfully. Too cheerfully. I laughed because I couldn’t stop myself, and that only made me pinker.
Cassadaga is a real town, which still hosts a large community of spiritualists, psychics, and clairvoyants (earning it the nickname “Psychic Capital of the World”), and is brimming with personality. Within a few chapters, you begin to feel like you know its residents (though, admittedly, I had trouble keeping some of the fringe players straight) and landmarks just as well as you know your own neighbourhood. Lesser authors might have overdone it with the clairvoyants, turning the residents of Cassadaga into a town of cartoon characters—but not Priest. By being respectful and thorough (based on her acknowledgements, Priest spent time in Cassadaga while researching for Brimstone), Priest successfully creates a community that is eccentric and whimsical, without feeling like a convenient caricature.
The ending is a bit too pat—the mystery solved and resolved too quickly—but I so badly wanted things to end well for the characters, particularly Alice, that I didn’t care. Ultimately, the plot and mystery (which, admittedly, went in a direction I wasn’t expecting—but ended up a bit more by-the-numbers than I was hoping for), weren’t what pulled me through Brimstone, and that’s okay. I left feeling satisfied. It was like returning home from summer camp with new friends and memories.
Brimstone is a haunting and surprisingly funny book—at turns raising the hair on your arms, and a laugh from your belly. Cassadaga is a delight, and being able to experience its intricacies and eccentricities through a newcomer’s eyes, reminded me of exploring Hogsmeade from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or Hopewell, Illinois from Terry Brooks’s criminally underrated Running with the Demon. Priest has laid enough groundwork that a sequel seems inevitable, but also wraps things up nicely enough for the experience to feel whole and complete. With its unique mix of Americana, post-war themes, likeable characters, and swift plot, Brimstone is easy to recommend.
Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom”. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.