Rebecca Alexander’s The Secrets of Life and Death reminded me of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels – and that’s a compliment. Alexander’s novel isn’t a doorstopper like a Rickman book, but it’s a suspenseful supernatural mystery with charming yet flawed characters, and even an old cottage in the country (here, it’s Devon). I wanted to put on a wool sweater, brew a pot of black tea, and tuck my feet up next to a cozy fire. And then start looking over my shoulder!
It’s difficult to pin down a genre though, for The Secrets of Life and Death. The title is somewhat generic – it doesn’t tell you at all that inside these pages you’ll find a fictionalized account of real life alleged serial killer Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who may have murdered hundreds of young women and girls in Eastern Europe from 1585 to the date of her imprisonment in 1610.
In this novel, it’s the occultist Edward Kelley who, within the harrowing pages of his journals, recounts the story of how he and his mentor Dr. John Dee saved the young Countess from a deadly sickness, only to make her into an immortal monster – a vampire who derives superhuman strength from human blood. Kelley and Dee were real historical figures, both of whom studied the full gamut of metaphysical and alchemical lore in the late sixteenth century. These men were equally at home discussing algebra and astronomy or magic and divination, and saw no division between magic and science. Edward was said to have the ability to channel angels, a talent – or self-deception – evident in this novel.
Edward Kelley’s story parallels the present-day events in the lives of Jackdaw Hammond and Professor Felix Guichard. Jack too, is undead, but far from a monster. She and her friend Maggie use their knowledge of magic and Enochian sigils to save young women from tragic deaths, in the same way Jack herself was saved years ago. The price the women pay for life is to be metaphysically chained to the power of the protective symbols they must wear on their skin; they become revenants, and their blood carries the power to extend life.
When a disbelieving young girl in Jack and Maggie’s care runs away, only to suffer the fate from which she’d been rescued (an overdose of drugs), her body is found on a train, her skin covered in strange symbols that the police believe must be satanic or black magic. Professor Felix Guichard, an expert in belief systems outside the mainstream – his degree is in West African sorcery – is called in to evaluate the scene. In this, the book reminded me too of Michael Gruber’s excellent Jimmy Paz novels, though Gruber is more adept at weaving his research into a narrative. Nonetheless, Felix, intrigued by the symbols, seeks out Jackdaw, who has recently found a new young girl to save, Sadie. But something else is hunting Jack, too. And in 1585, Edward and John are about to make a terrible mistake that will have consequences far in the future – Jack’s future.
It’s the characters that carry this book. Tormented Edward; fierce Jackdaw, kindhearted Felix, feisty Sadie. As Jack and Felix’s relationship deepens in the midst of chaos, as Sadie accepts her reality with dignity, and as Edward understands the consequences of his actions, we can reflect on not so much the secrets of life and death, but the ideas of good and evil. It’s never been completely undisputed that Elizabeth Bathory committed all the atrocities of which she was accused – she was a powerful woman with enemies. In the novel, she chooses to become cursed. Jack is given the same choice, but she is not the same kind of person as Bathory. I wondered why Alexander gave her female character a man’s name, but I think the point is more that she bears the name of a bird – the small black crows – daws – of England and Europe. Jack means ‘small,’ yet this woman is anything but. Alexander is currently penning the third book in this trilogy; I can’t wait for Jackdaw to carry more light through darkness.
I received this book as a free ARC from Netgalley.