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The Briar Book of the Dead

The Briar Book of the Dead by A.G Slatter

Titan Books, pb, £8.49

Reviewed by Rym Kechacha

Ellie Briar is a member of the ruling Briar family of witches who rule the town of Silverton with a benevolent sternness and a wary suspicion of the anti-witch bishops of far away Lodellan. Ellie is competent at her duties as Steward and well-liked in her community, except she does not have a shred of magical ability in her, unlike her three witch cousins who take on other magical roles in running Silverton. When Ellie’s grandmother dies unexpectedly, she and her cousins have to step up to lead the town, but naturally, there are secrets their ancestors have buried, secrets the townsfolk are keeping and very dark secrets they’ve been keeping from each other that start to swirl and change everything.

This is a world where witches are begrudgingly tolerated when their skills are needed but mostly feared and persecuted. It’s a part of Slatter’s Sourdough universe where folklore, fairytale and mythology are all bound up in a recognisable package that isn’t a retelling but can feel like it in a really rich way. Slatter uses motifs and tropes from the darker, woods-bound stories of Grimm and twists them while retaining the dream-like imagery that resides in our collective unconscious. There are blood prices to pay for magic; creatures that twist a corpse into something nosily mournful; old tales that are kind of true; ghosts that need absolution from their earthly regrets; misogyny bound up in the figures of female healers and leaders; petty small-town gripes; the griefs of losing your child or your spouse or the dream of what you thought your life might be. The moralities of the characters’ actions are complex; the goodies are not entirely good, and the baddies are not entirely bad, which is always something that makes for a rich reading experience for me. I feel like in our times of complexity and the revelations of our interconnectedness among our paradoxical disconnection, I seek out stories – even (perhaps especially) within the fantasy genre – which portray this and don’t offer easy good-v-bad dichotomies.

This novel is linked to the events of the novella Of Sorrow and Such. Some three hundred years into the future, the decisions made in that story reverberate through The Briar Book of the Dead. I find the way Slatter is constructing the novels within what she calls the Sourdough universe so satisfying; telling interlinked stories of different lengths (there are short stories, novellas and novels set within this world) often set hundreds of years apart, with guest appearances by characters from other books. It’s immersive and manages to reward both readers who dip in and out of the series and those who love hunting for easter eggs and re-reading. All the books can stand alone, be read in any order and find readers wherever they’re at, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld or Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers. In a fast-paced, noisy publishing world, there is a grace to thinking that you can get to a book on your own time, and it will be waiting for you when you get there.

Having said that, once you start reading, it’s a very compelling page-turner; I flew through it in a couple of days. I had the satisfaction of realising most of the plot points a beat or two before they were revealed and being surprised as the rest untangled themselves, and I always find something to marvel at when a writer manages that balance with such skill. To consider the reader intelligent enough to work out what’s going on but still able to give the pleasure of surprise is a difficult act to pull off and one Slatter has achieved seemingly effortlessly.

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