Recently the Self-Published Fantasy Month Team posted a list of some self-published fantasy recs for those who have not read much self-published fantasy and don’t know where to start with finding a good book to read. Our hope was to offer up a few suggestions each while admitting the list would leave out a bunch of great books and authors. I hate leaving out great stories so I decided to re-post the reviews of all the self-published fantasy books I’ve really enjoyed over the last few years. Over the coming days and weeks I’ll be re-posting them here in the lead up to Self-Published Fantasy Month. My hope is you might find one that catches your interest for September!
Today’s installment is The Half Killed by Quenby Olson. I first saw this book in my Twitter feed and fell in love with the cover. Then the author held a giveaway of a physical copy of the book. I entered and won! It turned out to be one of my absolute favorite self-published books.
The Half Killed will seduce you. It will whisper and draw you gently into its pages. Before you know it you’re in its clutches. This isn’t a wanton sexual seduction, all about the eyes and desire. No, this is the kind that entices your mind, playing on your emotions of safety and fear, telling you its going to be all-right while you know for a certainty something evil lurks around the corner but you can’t help but trust and follow into the shadows. It is a dark, intimate, and immersive Victorian horror story that will keep you turning pages.
“Dorothea Hawes has no wish to renew contact with what lies beyond the veil. After an attempt to take her own life, she has retired into seclusion, but as the wounds on her body heal, she is drawn into a world she wants nothing more than to avoid.
She is sought out by Julian Chissick, a former man of God who wants her help in discovering who is behind the gruesome murder of a young woman. But the manner of death is all too familiar to Dorothea, and she begins to fear that something even more terrible is about to unleash itself on London.
And so Dorothea risks her life and her sanity in order to save people who are oblivious to the threat that hovers over them. It is a task that forces her into a confrontation with her own lurid past, and tests her ability to shape events frighteningly beyond her control.” – Goodreads blurb
Throughout the story there is a tension between the events of Thea’s past (both distant and recent) which are slowly revealed, and the events of the present which increasingly seem to be related to the former. Thea had thought she’d left her old life behind her, a life lived in the world of mediums, séances, possession, and the paranormal. It is a world where many practitioners are charlatans giving a greedy public a faux fix for their desire to communicate beyond the veil, but where few true purveyors of the art exist who can provide a real experience. Thea, one of those true purveyors is something of a celebrity within her community, albeit one who wishes to retire early and leave it all behind. But when Chissick shows up at her door asking her to assist in investigating a murder she can’t help but be drawn back in only to discover what lurks in the darkness may kill her and everyone she holds dear in the process.
As I noted in my opening The Half Killed is dark, intimate, and immersive. This is all due to Olson’s writing style. From page one I felt like I was in the story and I loved it. All of what I said about how it draws you in…that’s Olson’s handiwork. Her writing is smooth and rich, like chocolate syrup. I know that’s a crazy way to describe a horror novel but I’m struggling to put what I want to say into words.
Most of the book – all except the prologue – is told in the first person from the point of view of the protagonist Dorothea Hawes. I know a lot of people hate first person, but it is used extremely well here as the narrative is wrapped up in Thea’s past and present.
The only chapter to be told from a different point of view is the prologue. It’s told from a second person POV and is one of the best examples of this I’ve ever read. As you begin this chapter you know the narrator is talking to someone else, some other party in the story, but the opening paragraph is so evocative you can’t help but feel like the narrator is talking to you.
“It wasn’t your fault. Mama forced you to do it, one hand on your sleeve, the other combing through your curls, and all the while she whispered in your ear, saying it would be all right, that it would please her so much if you would just show yourself in front of the guests. And with such enticement what choice did you have? So you said yes…”
When I read that first paragraph I knew something horrible was coming. Horrible because the set-up hinted at it, but also because of the intimacy of that mother child interaction where the child will do anything to please the parent they love, even when they know it is the wrong thing to do. I was hooked from that opening paragraph.
Olson has a way of writing atmosphere that captures you and sets you in place. The setting is a sultry summer in London. Olson uses the season and location well in her writing. The oppressive heat coupled with a gruesome murder mystery lays a heavy blanket over the narrative in such a way that the reader can almost feel it and the weariness it produces in Thea while the city provides a suspenseful backdrop to the events at hand.
Then there’s Olson’s use of language. Here I’m at something of a disadvantage because I have not read many books set in the Victorian era so I can’t say what is true to form and what isn’t. But the entire time I read, I felt I could hear the accents and cadences of the characters. It just felt right to my mind’s ear. This carried over to non-dialogue descriptions as well. Maybe it is just what I as an American think sounds right, but it worked for me and pulled me even more into the story.
Olson’s other works have included a number of romance/love stories and I wonder if some of her skill in that genre was put to good use here. This isn’t a modern romance novel but woven into the writing are elements I can’t really put into words (or I’d be an author myself) that I imagine are put to good use in Romance (which I haven’t ever read). Perhaps this is where the seduction I noted in my opening comes into play. The fact it works here so well shouldn’t be surprising as the gothic horror genre was birthed from the romantic form. Think of the seductive character of Dracula and vampire literature in general and you’ll know what I mean. Olson’s writing is much more on par with that kind of horror than later forms of the genre.
The Half Killed is a relatively short book. As such you can read it in a couple of sittings, even just one if you have the time. The pacing throughout is pretty consistent, a slow burn of a novel, but not too slow. It fits perfectly with the narrative plot and tension and its character driven elements.
The story is propelled not so much by action but by characters and their interactions. There isn’t a lot of action. I mean there IS a little or else what’s the point right? But it truly is a character driven plot. I know many readers say they hate character driven stories but I think what they mean is they hate poorly written character driven stories. When written well they can be even more enjoyable than action driven plots. And this one is written well. As such it is the characters’ actions and responses to events that sets the pace for this book, not the way events happen to the characters. Let me add that I LOVE action. So when a character driven story pulls me in I sit up and take notice. I never once sat back while reading The Half Killed and wished for more action to push the narrative pace along.
Miss Dorothea Hawes is the story’s protagonist. The narrative is told from her point of view and the reader moves through the events of the novel through her eyes and experiences. Thea suffers from a depression that recently drove her to attempt suicide. She is still somewhat weak and recovering while having trouble sleeping. She hears voices in her head and is plagued by pain she can’t fully explain but fears she knows its origin. As such Thea is physically weak yet at the same time exhibits an inner strength that propels her along.
Julian Chissick is the secondary character of import. A somewhat disheveled ex-man of God Chissick seeks Thea’s aid in a murder mystery that he believes only she can solve. Chissick becomes a rock that Thea can cling to not for strength per se, but as an anchor in an increasingly shifting and stormy world.
The dance between Thea and Chissick moves along with the narrative. There is a hint of affection and longing that develops between them but in such manner that is never overt or overdone. At times it even adds to the tension in a scene and in their relationship, and the reader is left wondering throughout whether anything will come of it. Olson did a great job writing these two characters.
There are a number of other secondary characters who each add depth and intrigue to the story: There is Marta, Thea’s former handler in the world of séance and the paranormal who would book sessions and find clientele who would pay handsomely; And Lady Francesca, Marta’s new protégé who may or may not be the real deal like Thea…and who may resent living in her shadow; Sissy, an old friend from the street who also has real abilities and can “see” what others cant’; And Ryall, of minor nobility and who was once Thea’s benefactor and lover.
Olson has set her story in 19th century Victorian London. As such she has a lot of historical references to build off of in terms of setting, language, dress, and culture. In all of these her touch is light, with just enough detail to conjure up images in our mind from pictures, books, movies, and locales we’ve seen or experienced before.
The setting becomes the stage for Olson’s exploration of horror and the occult. Thea’s lived experience is in the world of psychics and mediums (both real and charlatan), of possessions, and things that go bump in the night; a world of monsters that live in a parallel existence and threaten to rip the fabric separating our world from theirs and burst through the seam.
There are a number of themes Olson weaves through the book. I’ve already gone on too long so I’ll just touch on them a bit. Light and more specifically it’s opposite darkness play throughout the story. Darkness is always threatening to overtake the characters and it weighs upon them. Life and Death are also predominant; for the victims of the murders and for Dorothea herself. Darkness and death are almost linked hand-in-hand throughout.
Abuse and depression also factor prominently. Thea suffers from both and her character can’t be understood apart from them and the affect they’ve had on her. They inform her actions and how others perceive her.
Family and Loyalty are perhaps the third strong thematic tie I found. Family and loyalty in the sense of both blood relation and ties built between friends. These both play positively and negatively for Thea throughout the book.
I don’t know what else to say other than I loved this book. If you like Victorian era horror stories, especially character driven ones dripping in atmosphere and tone it should be right up your alley. But even if you don’t normally venture down that path I’d encourage you to try it…you might be surprised how much you like it. I was, and I look forward to more in this genre from Olson.
Note: I won a copy of this book in a give-a-way hosted by the author. This was a give-a-way pure and simple with no expectation of a review in exchange.
5 of 5 Stars
Author: Quenby Olson
Series: Sundered Veil #1
Publisher: Self Published
Publication Date: August 13, 2015