Gwenda Bond's debut novel, a YA paranormal about the lost colony of Roanoke, moves along at a breathless pace, investing a humdrum plotline with a remarkable sense of urgency. Blackwood is not quite unputdownable—I did put it down once, at about five in the morning—but it's close. This quality is achieved not through cliffhangers or whodunits, but through Bond's exquisite sense of pacing. Every chapter adds a new piece to the puzzle. The plot develops smoothly and consistently, though its predictability and logical flaws become obvious as soon as Blackwood releases its grip, and are jarring even before that point.
Set on Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina, Bond's novel follows the eponymous Miranda Blackwood, a poor geeky teen who has been parenting her alcoholic father; and Philips Rawling, the impulsive, wily son of the local police chief. When Miranda's father is murdered and one hundred and fourteen of their neighbors disappear, Miranda and Philips join forces to investigate. The mysterious events replicate an earlier vanishing, the sixteenth-century disappearance of English settlers on the same island. The pair soon realize that Miranda's family curse and Philips's psychic powers link them to the original colonists, whose sinister plans they must defeat. Predictably, they fall in love along the way, though the romantic element remains pleasantly low-key.
Bond has a real talent for capturing teenage behavior and decision-making. She gets the technology right, but more importantly she gets the state of mind right. Miranda is a multifaceted protagonist. Her life is far from easy, but she isn't defined solely by her problems. Her love of sci fi shows, her job at a theater, and her devotion to her pet dog make her vivid and non-generic. These traits are consistently incorporated throughout the novel rather than simply mentioned as quirks. At the same time, growing up with an alcoholic parent has shaped her. Miranda has a strong sense of responsibility, which makes for an interesting conflict when the curse interferes with her ability to control her actions. Never having expected much of life, she has a limited sense of its possibilities. Physically, she has never left the island; emotionally, she is slow to accept Philips's love, literally pushing him away despite her attraction to him. Miranda's arc as she fights the curse, and other attempts to use her, and emerges into a world of broader possibility, is solid and satisfying.
Philips is equally vivid, yet more of a stock figure. The best part of his characterization is his sharp mind, always seeking out new information or plotting a way out of tricky situations. Bond persuasively describes how such a person might act and see the word, including a taut, delightful scene in which he plans and executes a jailbreak. However, the character is otherwise unoriginal. Like so many male romantic leads, he has an undeservedly dark reputation. Early on, Philips is referred to as a "criminal," but his crimes amount to a few pranks, justified by the circumstances, and an escape when wrongly arrested (and one car theft, which we'll get to). His criminal reputation may be intended to parallel Miranda's outcast status, but its main effect is to rehash an overused cliché. Philips is initially obsessed with protecting Miranda for fairly flimsy reasons, and his decision to steal his mother's car to check on her is hard to swallow, especially since he could have done so just as easily by simply getting in the car with his mom. It gets the main characters together in one place, jumpstarting the plot, but it doesn't make much sense in context. Illogical character actions only become more of a problem as the book progresses.
Many secondary characters feel unreal, manipulated in the service of the plot. Philips's parents' behavior seems to depend on whether the protagonists need an obstacle or an ally at the moment, rather than emerging organically from their personalities. A pair of FBI agents pursues an obviously implausible theory so that Philips and Miranda can become fugitives cut off from outside aid before confronting evil. This artificiality prevents Blackwood from acquiring greater depth. And the plot it supports is not especially interesting.
Unsurprisingly, the forces of evil are fans of immortality, mind control, and world domination. There is a dangerous magical artifact of unclear powers, dating back to the Lost Colony, in the possession of one of our heroes. There is an outwardly innocent ceremony doubling as the malefactor's planned triumph, so that our heroes shudder as naïve townsfolk watch enrapt. The antagonists themselves are more types than people: the young, misled pawn, still morally salvageable; the mole whose treachery should shock, but has little emotional impact; the megalomaniac villain who is creepily fixated on the heroine. The plot is competently executed, with a surprising amount of tension building up, but Bond doesn't offer anything new here. Considering the many possibilities inherent in the Roanoke legend and the early hints that alchemy will somehow be involved, it's disappointing to watch a bog-standard plot unfold instead.
Some threads have more emotional heft. The stilted, unnatural behavior of the possessed characters, who have Miranda outnumbered, is chilling, and Bond skillfully complicates the mood with a touch of humor, as when one of the antagonists, new to the twenty-first century, becomes obsessed with jelly donuts. When Miranda thinks about how "to get out of this house, away from these stiff, donut-scarfing girls" (p. 171), I was both in suspense and grinning.
The responsible Miranda still feels the need to take care of her friends, even if she can only do so physically. "Why are you helping me? Your friend is not in here," one of the possessed points out, baffled by Miranda's willingness to help her. "My friend . . . still exists. That's enough," she replies (p. 249). Miranda's empathy adds depth to this subplot, and to the main storyline. As her father's murder connects with the larger mystery, she has to reevaluate what she thought she knew about him, coming to a more sympathetic understanding of his problems while still dealing with the impact of his addiction on her life. When he, too, becomes a victim of possession, Miranda is faced with heartbreaking choices. But overall, the interesting moments are outweighed by formulaic elements that drag Blackwood down.
Blackwood has several notable strengths, and its intense pacing and likeable protagonists make it a quick and satisfying read. But it lacks the depth to repay rereading, or the creativity that could have made it stand out from the crowd. In her first novel, Gwenda Bond had shown her ability to craft a suspenseful ride out of some overused elements. Hopefully future books will display more inventiveness when it comes to plotting, stronger internal logic in characterization, and a greater willingness to set aside clichés.
Maya Chhabra is a student at Georgetown University. Her reviews have been published by Ideomancer, where she is an associate editor, and by Strange Horizons. She is a graduate of the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers.
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