Faren Miller reviews Gwenda Bond

Early American history (or is it legend?), alchemy, and a long-standing family curse reach a crisis point around a pair of modern teens in Blackwood, the excellent debut of Locus contributing editor Gwenda Bond. Though the publisher is British, Bond is thoroughly American; as the bio notes, she lives in a century-old house in Lexington KY, with her husband (author Christopher Rowe) and several pets. She’s well-equipped to speculate about matters on Roanoke Island, site of the Lost Colony where 114 settlers vanished in Elizabethan times.

Roanoke is now a tourist destination off the coast of North Carolina, yet it retains some insular qualities. All of the full-time residents know Miranda Blackwood’s family lies under some kind of curse, dating from the island’s early days. That image of a snake on the face of her drunken father is no tattoo (and it will pass to her after his death), and both of them seem doomed never to leave Roanoke – not alive, at any rate.

Phillips Rawling, son of the local police chief, has left, though it took desperate measures for him to reach a ‘‘year-round boarding school’’ which specializes in delinquent youths. Before the escape, he was continually haunted by voices in his head: ‘‘During the worst moments, it was like every person who’d ever lived and died on the island – and it had been occupied for a very long time – shouted at him,’’ producing ‘‘chaos he couldn’t begin to control.’’ Silence is sweet relief. And yet a new disaster draws him back; when another 114 islanders abruptly disappear, someone with his ‘‘gift’’ just might find clues to where they went. But he doesn’t really come at his father’s call. After four years away, when he sees Miranda on TV, telling a vacuous reporter, ‘‘Leave me the frak alone,’’ he knows he must return.

Despite their family links to Roanoke’s early days, a gift/curse that makes both of them feel like a misfits, Miranda and Phillips are both 17, accustomed to the world of earbuds, iPods, remotes, and babbling anchorwomen like her would-be interviewer. When the strange disappearance – followed by an equally inexplicable ‘‘return’’ – of the latest missing persons turns out to be linked with a scheming sorcerer from many centuries ago, he gripes, ‘‘Evil dead guys having secret plans for girls you really liked and wanted to live sucked.’’

And evil isn’t what it used to be. Despite growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, ‘‘bad girl’’ Miranda tends to obey the rules (as long as she’s in her right mind). When another teenager, the gawky son of a preacher-man, proclaims, ‘‘Dad talks to angels,’’ she shows her knowledge of scripture: ‘‘Satan was an angel.’’ But Phillips will have none of it, responding, ‘‘This isn’t something any god would be involved in. Or any fallen angel. The devil is just the kind of word my gran would use.’’ He prefers to view their prime adversary, returned from the dead, as more of a mad scientist whose dreams of progress led him so far astray that he’s become a force of destruction.

Offbeat and imaginative, Blackwood mingles past and present, dark forces with a hint of pulp SF, along with many kinds of drama – from Shakespearean revenge to an amphitheater show where the island’s legend is just an entertainment for passing tourists. Whether viewed as young adult, genre mix, or a first novel, it belongs with the year’s best.



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