The first line of The Hawley Book of the Dead is a very intriguing one: “on the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.” Immediately there are questions. Who is speaking? Why did she kill her husband? And what does the scent of lilacs have to do with anything?
I didn’t have long to wait for the first two questions, at least, to be answered. The narrator is Reve (short for Revelation) Dyer and she didn’t intend to kill her husband. She and Jeremy were happily married with three children and had worked together for years as part of a successful Las Vegas magic act known as the Amazing Maskelynes. Jeremy’s death was the result of a stunt that went wrong when someone replaced the blanks in Reve’s pistol – a stage prop – with real bullets, something which must have been done deliberately. Now Reve has been left devastated and afraid – even more so when she becomes convinced that the murderer is a man who has been on her trail since her student days, a man she knows only as ‘the Fetch’.
Deciding it’s time to start a new life as far away as possible, Reve and her three young daughters, Grace, Fai and Caleigh, move to their family’s neglected old estate in Massachusetts. Hawley Five Corners was once a thriving little town, but was abandoned long ago amid stories of unexplained disappearances and a haunted wood. It seems the perfect place to hide from the Fetch, but almost as soon as she and the girls move into an empty farmhouse in the deserted town, strange things begin to happen. When she finds a mysterious red and gold book which has been in her family for years, passed down through the generations, Reve discovers that the only way she can keep her daughters safe is to try to understand the secrets the book contains.
The Hawley Book of the Dead is the third book I’ve read for the R.I.P. XI event. It proved to be an ideal book to read at this time of year when the weather is beginning to change and the nights are starting to get longer (the characters even celebrate Halloween halfway through the novel). I’ve seen comparisons with The Night Circus, The Lost Book of Salem and A Discovery of Witches and while I can see some similarities with all of those, I thought there were plenty of original ideas here too.
I liked the way magic was handled in the novel. It’s important to the plot but doesn’t dominate the story to the exclusion of everything else. A few chapters in, we learn that the female members of the Dyer family (going back for centuries) possess magical powers of one sort or another – for example, Reve’s gift is the ability to vanish into thin air, while Caleigh’s is a fascinating one involving string games. At first I didn’t really understand the purpose of their magic but as the history of the Dyers and Hawley Five Corners was gradually revealed, it all began to make more sense. I was particularly intrigued by the Irish mythology and folklore – especially the tales of the Tuatha de Danann – which were woven into the story of Reve’s ancestors.
However, the magic was the most interesting thing about the characters. Although I liked Reve and her daughters and enjoyed the occasional scenes involving Reve’s grandmother, Nan, and her mysterious friend, Falcon Eddy, I didn’t find any of the characters very strong or memorable. I also thought the inclusion of Reve’s old boyfriend, Jolon, as a love interest was unnecessary, especially as she was still supposed to be grieving for Jeremy. These were my only disappointments with the book; otherwise, I loved the author’s descriptive writing, the entertaining story and the atmospheric setting.
The Hawley Book of the Dead was published in 2014 and according to the About the Author note at the end of the book it was intended to be the first in a quartet. I can’t find any recent news about a second novel, but I hope there’s still going to be one as I would like to know what happens next!