Brimstone, by Cherie Priest, may start perhaps a bit too slowly for some readers’ liking, but it builds up into a wonderfully eerie novel.
It seems appropriate to use a fire metaphor here, since Brimstone very much concerns itself with the idea. (It’s right there in the name, and, unsurprisingly, it plays a major role in the plot.) At first, reading this book is a bit like seeing fire or smoke off in the distance, enough to pique your interest and draw you in. Once you get closer, you can’t look away.
Our protagonists are Tomás Cordero, a World War I soldier returned from the war to find himself haunted and a widower, and Alice Dartle, a talented clairvoyant looking to improve her skills. Both find themselves drawn to Cassadaga, Florida, a community of spiritualists. Alice might be untrained, but she’s the only one that can help Tomás.
Overall, Brimstone snags a rating of 4/5 stars, thanks to its excellent use of double narrators, but it does feel somewhat strangely paced at the beginning for a reader looking to be thrown directly into the action.
The setting of Brimstone works really well. The book takes place in January 1920, and things like Prohibition actually matter. So do different aspects of men’s fashion in particular. (It might inspire a curious reader to go do some research about what exactly makes some of the suits described different from others.)
Alice and Tomás switch back and forth between narrating the chapters, and Priest does a wonderful job of differentiating their voices. Alice is in her early twenties, and she sounds like it in her narration. She likes her bourbon (she’s from Virginia, thank you very much). Her chapters are a bit lighter in their humor; Tomás, on the other hand, is a touch more serious. However, readers can easily pick up on the connections Priest puts in the chapters, including use of similar phrases, which underscores the greater reason why Tomás needs Alice’s help. Neither are boring, either. They just happen to have well-defined viewpoints on the world.
Her approach to spiritualism also works for the story she’s trying to tell. Priest doesn’t try to establish a system of paranormal rules (using the word magic seems like the wrong choice). The phrase “can’t hurt, might help” shows up a few times. Honestly, it can make for a refreshing change of pace from high fantasy. The more modern historical setting does, I think, help here.
The book does start pretty slowly, or it might simply feel a bit slow to a reader expecting there to instantly be danger at every turn. It doesn’t seem like a spoiler to say that the two main characters do meet, but it does take some time to get there. Priest does make sure that the earlier portions pay off, though, or are at least relevant later.
Sometimes, a particular style choice felt as though it showed up too often. In both Alice’s and Tomás’ chapters, they have short lines as a single paragraph. My impression was that the point is to emphasize what’s being said relative to the surrounding paragraphs. To do it as often as it seems to appear does rather lessen the impact.
Brimstone makes for a nice palate cleanser if you find yourself stuck in a rut. In terms of genre, there’s a dash of historical fiction, plenty of paranormal fiction, and a touch of horror, too. It makes for an eerie read that can appeal to fans of any of the three aforementioned categories.
You can pick up Brimstone at your bookseller of choice.