The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

I find that in the past few weeks I’ve been in a little bit of a reading funk.  Thankfully I picked up The Secrets of Life and Death and that seems to have helped me overcome my slump!  I really enjoyed this.  It was a compelling read that flits between two different timeframes with a tale that delves into folklore and explores the secret of longevity.

The story commences with the death of a young woman on a train.  No cause of death is immediately obvious and, in fact, there appears to have been no struggle.  The only reason that the authorities are suspicious is that the girl in question has strange symbols drawn all over her skin – that, and the fact that another young girl has recently been reported missing, alerts the authorities to the potential that an occult group may be practising strange rituals.  As a result a professor from the local university is called in to consult over the markings and give his verdict.  Professor Guichard is indeed an expert and he quickly becomes much more involved in this strange case than he ever anticipated.

At the same time we follow Jack, a young female who seems to play a part in the these bizarre rituals and is deeply involved in the black magic market.  She has some very peculiar meetings with a rather sinister character who buys herbs, and other less conventional, and not readily available over the counter, items!

In the parallel story we travel with Edward Kelly and his master Dr John Dee to the court of Countess Bathory – where he has been summoned by the King of Poland to try and address a strange malady that afflicts her.  This is a really interesting plot line that looks at beginnings, experimentation and dabbling that ultimately will lead to something much darker than expected.  The Countess of Bathory seems to come from a line of females under a curse.  The locals fear and loath her.  They undertake her bidding but there is certainly no love for their mistress.  The castle to which Edward and John eventually travel is a foreboding place set within the Carpathian mountains, the people are surly and fearsome.  The pair’s stay at the castle is more consistent with that of prisoner, even if a comfortable captivity, than guest and their eventual release seems dependent upon their search for a cure being successful.  To make matters more serious it seems that the pair have been followed to the castle by the Inquisitor – who would remove them to Spain and look into their beliefs more seriously (probably involving a bit of torture)!  Obviously this is a very uncomfortable and scary position in which to find themselves and the story picks up quite a head of steam at this point.

I can’t really delve too deeply into the plor because it will involve spoilers.  What I can say is that this is not a vampire story although I think comparisons are inevitable given the nature of the tale and the exploration of folklore involved.  It’s a really interesting look into immortality and the depths to which people will sink in order to achieve it.

I’m not totally sure that I’ve done the book justice with the above.  As I said, it’s difficult to discuss too much without giving away the story but I would repeat that this is a gripping story that kept me quite captivated.

In terms of criticisms.  I think my most basic criticism was the foolish consistency of the main characters within the contemporary setting of the story to stay in a place, or places, where they had clearly been identified.  If your enemies have found your bolt hole then it’s time to move out!  As far as I’m concerned anyway.  Obviously I understand that this probably isn’t as easy as it sounds but it would have been a risk worth taking.

I liked the characters, particularly Jackdaw and Sadie.  Jack’s easy to engage with and to feel sympathy for.  I found myself caring for her and also for her younger charge Sadie.  The Professor I’m still not decided upon.  He was very quick to believe which I was a little doubtful of at first but more than that I didn’t totally warm to him for some reason.  Perhaps it’s because he clearly likes Jack but is also undecided about his feelings for his ex wife.

On the whole a book I would have no hesitation in recommending.  A bit of a mystery, a bit of history, dark and a little chilling with magic and a touch of evil.  An impressive debut.  I’m not entirely sure whether or not the author intends to revisit or continue into a series as, although this book ends with some questions open, it seems fairly self contained.  I think there’s definitely room for a revisit though and I would without doubt spend time with these characters again.

I received a copy of this from Netgalley in exchange for a honest review.  The above is my own opinion.

4 Responses to “The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander”

  1. thenovellife1

    Oh wow! This one sounds right up my alley! I’ve been looking for that perfect read to get me through the weekend while my darling bf is out of town. I have lots of books to read and review but I really want one that’s going to keep me so immersed that I’m not concerned with the world going on around me 🙂

    Off to find this one for my reading pleasure!

    and Cheers to you and your family along with very best wishes and a Merry Christmas!

    • lynnsbooks

      Happy holidays to you also. I hope you enjoy it if you give it a try. It definitely held my attention.
      Lynn 😀

  2. jdbookworm

    Very glad you enjoyed this one. It took me by surprise – excellent book.

    • lynnsbooks

      This was brilliant! Would never have picked it up but for you so thanks muchly!
      Lynn 😀

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