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In-Depth Critique

***Spoilers Ahead***

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Setting, Plot, and Conflict

Alex Easton finds a very gruesome situation when they visit the Usher estate upon receiving word that their dear friend, Madeline Usher, is gravely ill. The Usher's home on the hill is practically falling apart into the vile tarn surrounding it, and yet Roderick--Madeline's brother and Easton's prior comrade in arms--refuses to move their of them due to health and finances. With the help of an American doctor called Denton and Beatrix Potter's mycologist aunt, Easton investigates the situation surrounding the sickness of the property and the bizarre behavior of Madeline and many, many wild hares, just to discover how grotesque and terrifying nature can really be. Loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, What Moves the Dead goes in-depth into the sickness that truly brought on the destruction of the Usher name.

Near the beginnings of the book -- in the approach of the Usher estate -- the main character admits to lacking a sense of poetry particularly in describing the world as they see it. While I appreciate the character trait, it feels like a cop-out, like the expository writing then needlessly suffers from the lack of description. Over the course of the book, however, as the characters are paying more and more attention to the bizarre happenings, looking closer and closer at the setting-- specifically the tarn with its infected fish and hares, and the molding, dank manor itself -- the setting becomes more and more intriguing. The more descriptions that injected themselves into the narrative, the more the reader is led to ask "could it be the this? Or could it be this?" and to obsess over the details. Though it started relatively lack-luster, the setting definitely became much more vibrant and absorbing over time.

The scene where Easton goes out to shoot a hare particularly stands out to me. To just to be surrounded by more and more infected, nerve-wreaking hares, and to pick up a flailing body thought to be dead--the scene really stuck with me. Next to the autopsy scene--which I will address in a moment--the near-ambush scene was so unnerving and creepy that it set the tone of every hare encounter perfectly. Itis a great example of using setting and circumstance to create the desired ambiance for the rest of the book. Sidebar: I personally hate rabbits, so seeing on the page these nasty, weird rodents freaking people out came to be oddly validating for me.

The most satisfying section of the book for me was Easton, Denton, Ms. Potter, and Angus finally laying out the filthy, infected hare on the dining table and cutting it open. The autopsy scene fulfilled the need for directly horrific imagery, and it created a sick, curiosity-driven tension that made me want to plow through just to find the answers surely under the hare's skin. And the moment that the very dead, very dissected hare tried to drag itself away, making all of the weathered veterans scream was perfectly timed. It made my stomach crawl and I loved it.

The least satisfying section of the book for me was the very, very end, when Easton and the others dump the bags of Sulphur into the tarn. I found it very disappointing, realizing that the peak rising action was Madeline so calmly explaining that she had been infected with the fungus and had been long since dead. I completely missed it, because it didn't quite inspire the adrenaline rush that I'd expected. By then, we knew that there was an evolved fungus, and that Madeline was for all intents undead, so there wasn't really any big reveal of information either. I kept reading and reading expecting that the lull moment of Denton and Easton recovering in town was the calm before the storm, but the storm came as a short drizzle and I was indoors when it happened. The fact that the final killing blow, so to speak, was a bit of glowing light and then nothing also disappointed me. Maybe in the sequel, the inevitable resurgence of the fungi will reframe this book to be more and more rising action to the mass hysteria hurricane for which there is so much potential.

As a whole, I did find the moments of dark whimsy and humor to be very entertaining. I appreciate the juxtaposition of their superstitions towards the "witch-hares" or "familiars to devils" and their fear of the paranormal becoming a worse fear of the scientific. Touching on the underlying complex relationships that humans have with death and acceptance of death -- with Madeline's explicit self-awareness of being dead at least a month, and Rodrick boldly stating amidst his grief that his sister "isn't dead enough" -- and indirectly questioning how we define "death" using fungi (scientifically defined as "non-living" biological matter) is also incredibly smart and fascinating.

Characters and Perspective

The cast is relatively small, with the main characters in the house, the secondary characters coming to the house in one way or another at a later point, and the couple of tertiary characters on the fringes. The main characters--Easton, the Usher siblings, and Denton--seemed like they were caught in this whirlwind of incredible circumstances and therefore were constantly overwhelmed and a step behind. The secondary characters like Angus and Ms. Potter -- even the horse, Hobs!--were much more cool and collected, serving to ground the main characters and in many cases to move the rationalization of the plot along. Generally speaking, I found the main characters much more chaotic and unreliable than the secondary characters, but I found pieces in both groups that were relatable to me; that is, they acted and reacted in ways that I probably would have given I were in their situation.

I very much enjoyed the diversity in the characters, whether it be gender-identification (or lack thereof, which was just delightfully done), ancestry, or any other factor. Particularly, I was immediately hooked by the restructuring of language itself to accommodate a gender-neutral character. In many languages, there are gender-neutral pronouns, but it hasn't been until the last five to ten years that it's really been absorbed into everyday understanding. The concept presented in Gallacia's language, where there are separate pronouns for children, female-presenting, male-presenting, religious figures, and political/miliary figures couldn't have been presented to a more mindful, accepting audience. And it is very well explained early on in the book. I very much appreciated that a non-binary figure with no active sex identification or romantic alignment presented existed in the narrative without the overtaking the entire story.

I particularly liked Ms. Potter -- claimed in the Author's Note to be the freelance mycologist aunt of Beatrix Potter, author of The Tales of Peter Rabbit (an equally fabulous and vile footnote given the state of the rabbits in this story.) Ms. Potter doesn't have quite as much page-time as the other characters, but I found it delightful that regardless of the weird, biological horror nonsense that was unfolding around her, she just popped up in random places painting watercolors of mushrooms. She was like the entertaining NPC that by the last third of the book, became an irreplaceable character. Her demeanor was delightful, even when in dire situations, and she was a constant refresher amongst the gloomy handful of others.

My least favorite character was probably Roderick, simply because he didn't really progress anywhere. He spent the entire novel rightfully upset and exhausted by Madeline's state, but even when he snapped her neck and began acting more erratic, it didn't seem quite as dramatic as I'd expect. He also lacked some consistency; Immediately, I'm thinking of the scene near the end where he decides to burn down the house with his sister inside. He flips a switch from "I will do my duty" to the crazed "I can still hear her in the house" within two or three lines. Plus, it wasn't exactly the reaction I'd expect from someone who has nothing in life except this house, land, and his sister, and who has to decide to burn it all to the ground. Maybe it's because he was infected and knows that he'll survive regardless. Maybe it's because he was losing everything that he became this odd, semi-unhinged person. We may never know…

The Experience Reading the Book

In that this is the first full book I've read in a while--and that I finished it in two to three days--I liked the pace. In my current mindset, I needed to read something quick and interesting to me. Objectively, I see so much more potential for horrific encounters and skin-crawling mystery and dank darkness that it makes me wish it were more drawn out. I found myself craving more detail and more exploration of some fascinating things, like Madeline's "sleepwalking" and talking to herself, and her spending time with the fungi in the water, and the functions that the hares served to the fungi, and more.

As much as I wish there were more content to this particular story, I do recognize the similarities in style to works akin to The Fall of the House of Usher. All of those 1800s, gothic, horror works were relatively short and serving more surface-level information to leave the reader wanting; Kingfisher even mentions in the Author's Note feeling such a way upon rereading Poe's work, and that becoming the driving inspiration for writing What Moves the Dead. Ironically, I find myself still wanting, much like when I read the inspiring works. It's a fine line to walk -- between paying homage to the source content and pushing against the original style to fulfill the need for more detail. I don't think there is a right way to do it; but, I do think that there needed to be a solid commitment one way or the other.

I did enjoy the format. I can't imagine listening to an audiobook version, because of the self-proclaimed lack of poetry and flourish in the main character's perspective. I found this book very easy to read; it was quick paced, at an easy reading level, and short. The only bits that I found go over my head a little were the sections digging into the scientific information about mushrooms and fungi. I think the reactions of the narrator--Easton saying "okay sure whatever, but what do we do?"--made it seem okay to not entirely understand, though, which is a huge win. One of the most difficult things, I think, in reading and writing very scientific sci-fi is being able to translate the base information without it becoming a lecture. I appreciate when this is done well, and here, it is.

Overall, I think the summary provided by the publisher somewhat rings true; however, certain descriptors imply a deeper darkness than I think was delivered, as well as there being more emphasis on the bizarre actions of Madeline and Roderick Usher than focused on. I would have preferred more detail and steeping in the more horrific aspects. Overall, I wasn't exactly disappointed; I just expected more. This book is advertised as Adult Fiction; however, I do think it could be a good New Adult title as well, especially if there is an interest in the horror genre.

Though I personally find myself largely unsatisfied, I see so many possibilities for a sequel: we don't absolutely know the fate of Madeline or Roderick Usher or how many infected hares exist, we don't know if the Sulphur worked or if the fungi became sentient enough to "fake it's death", we don't know if the fungi spread beyond the Ushers and the hares elsewhere… There are too many loose ends. It's funny to me how in the Author's Note, Kingfisher states about The Fall of the House of Usher "…while there's a lot to be said about economy of storytelling, I found myself wanting more. I wanted explanations."(pg. 1754/1840, e-book), and yet he leaves so much open-ended. I think that that the second installment will blow the first book out of the water, so to speak.

If You Liked…

Of course, What Moves the Dead is based on the source text The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, which has numerous retellings, such as the fabulous Netflix Original series of the same name, and hundreds of other Poe-inspired works. There are also many, many fun allusions throughout the book to other works with similar whimsy and darkness, including Alice in Wonderland, Hamlet, Macbeth, and humorously, The Tales of Peter Rabbit.

I think fans of Edgar Allen Poe, of course, would enjoy this retelling. I also think that anyone intrigued by the beginnings of mass outbreaks would find this fascinating. Itis definitely more for horror readers that are more interested in gross horror than in psychological horror. T. Kingfisher adamantly suggests reading Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. It's not a book, but this also reminds me of The Last of Us. Another great albeit weird fungal narrative is also The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley. If you are more interested in the scientific horror/ thriller aspects, books like Jurassic Park and Prey both by Michael Crichton or Into the Drowning Deep by Seanan McGuire would likely appeal to you.

What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher

Setting, Plot, and Conflict

Alex Easton and their friends return to us in the much anticipated sequel to What Moves the Dead. This time Easton, Angus, and Miss Potter are visiting Easton's family hunting lodge in their home country of Gallacia, expecting a calm vacation after their debacle with the Ushers and their sentient mushrooms. Instead, they find the lodge's caretaker dead and the nearby villagers whispering about a moroi -- a breath-stealing spirit -- haunting the grounds. Persistent as ever, the crew find the only two people willing to live and work there while they all enjoy their getaway, only to find themselves questioning the validity of the local superstition when odd things start to occur and people start to get sick.

The setting was different physically compared to that of the first book, but it has a very similar aura. It was more bitter and still than the swampy dankness of the Usher's tarn, and the rundown cabin compared to the medieval manor create a different world. Both have a similar ambience with the unsettling undertones though. Both buildings are broken down and worn, and are thought ill of by the local villagers; There is isolation and macabre that parallel between the books.

Though this is of novella length, the conflict really took a bit to rev up, and similarly to the first book, the true horror came much later in the book than expected. The most satisfying moment in the book for me was the direct encounter with the moroi at the end -- from Easton being attacked through the drop into Easton's PTSD memories and on to the "death" of the creature. It stood out from the rest of the book, because it was the first time that we saw any real horror, and it was visually stunning. The image of the moroi's face ripping open and the flesh of the horses unraveling when Easton "awoke" post-attack, and the terror associated with the combined sleep paralysis and suffocation were excellent. In fact, the moroi is probably the most intriguing character of the book, and a large part of me wished that she won in the end. The visuals were so much more vibrant and lively with more movement than any other scenes. The descriptions within the dream world were so much higher quality compared to the flattened real world that I almost felt shorted by the remaining writing. I also loved the exploration of PTSD and dreams and what the moroi represented on a symbolic level. I wish that the quality I found in that scene was more readily available throughout.

The worst section was probably the whole introduction; traveling to the lodge, fixing up the place before Miss Potter's arrival, and even into Angus and Easton searching for workers and offering condolences to the late caretaker's daughter were pretty uninteresting to me. There is a need for setup, of course. It just felt very unnecessarily drawn out when that time could have been spent elsewhere in the story.

Characters and Perspective

My favorite character in the first book was Miss Potter, but she was even less involved in this installment regardless of her being directly in the action. There are less quips and she isn't as vibrant, in my opinion. Thinking through all of the other characters, I don't think I found any of them particularly likeable. I really wanted to like certain side characters like the priest and the Widow, but then they would say things that I found off-putting, such as the Widow diving into offering the invisible creature Easton in place of her grandson.

The main character, Alex Easton, was actually my least favorite character. I think a good portion of it came from my frustration with the narration. The density of the character in reading the situations around them and in understanding themself as a person were ever irritating, too. The further in I read, though, the more I thought to myself "wow, Easton is getting dumber and dumber". The final fight was redeeming -- Easton is a good soldier, in any case, and they do try really hard to do right -- but not quite redeeming enough. As a whole, I found the characters to be either semi-chaotic and noncommunicative with one another or simply fading into the background. Most of the time, I almost forgot about their existence unless they were directly speaking. Again, I think it's a frustration with Easton -- the alcoholic, PTSD-suffering, inattentive narrator -- but, all of the characters suffered.

Many, many times throughout the book, the fourth wall is broken. For those that are unfamiliar with the concept, the fourth wall refers to the window that an audience is watching through or the fourth/ front edge of a stage. A TV screen, for example, is a fourth wall. When a character or narrator in the world being viewed directly interacts with the audience member, that wall is broken. Easton includes at least seven wall-breaking sections, where they are directly addressing the reader. It isn't a terrible tool for writers to use if done very intently; in this case, I think it came across as a crutch. In five or six of the seven instances that I noted, the narrator used speaking to the reader to clarify instead of writing it clearly in the first place, or in some cases, instead of writing it out in the natural narrative at all. Every time pulled me out of the story and irritated me, because it was trying to tell me exactly how to react to the content or it was relying on me having specific experiences to draw a parallel to, such as saying "if you've [blank] before, then you know what I mean."

The Experience Reading the Book

I received this ARC in e-book format in response to reviewing the first installation What Moves the Dead. This particular ARC was more difficult to read than most, because of the random dashes, ones, and zeros -- this happens sometimes in advanced electronic copies of books -- but it was otherwise fine. The story itself wasn't particularly difficult to read. More than anything there was just a lot of messy, seemingly unedited writing throughout that was distracting or irksome. That, however, may also be due to this being an advanced copy; Editing often happens in-between the release of ARCs and the official publication.

The pace is odd, because it is a short, quick read, but the story itself works almost like an accordion swapping between fast and slow in unusual increments. I'm not 100% what the thought process behind it was or if there even was an intention there. It may be that the writing style -- where the less lively, expository sections felt more drawn out and slow and the more exciting, descriptive sections felt quicker as they were easier to digest -- exasperated the sensation. Regardless of reason, I would have preferred something a little more even-keel like the first book, or even just more smoothness. The book's sense of time is also warped in an odd way. There are sections where conversations are cut short, and suddenly we are an hour later for no obvious reason. There are sections whereas I read it felt like the period of time described was a few weeks to a month, then suddenly it's mentioned that only one week has past. It is very choppy, contributing to the choppiness of the overall pace. After having finished it, I honestly have no clue how long the events of the book took at all.

I think that this book was written with a lot of intentions in mind, but that it didn't exactly hit the mark on any of them. The success of the first book I'm sure led to the inception of the sequel, but it really didn't feel like a sequel aside from it being the same characters. Part of the charm of the first book was the juxtaposition of science and supernatural horror, and this one dove headfirst into the supernatural with a very, very, very thin tie to science (the mention of pneumonia being the true culprit though there was physical evidence of the supernatural events.) The first book also played to the strengths of the characters while this one just sort of happened to them in a way that could've happened to anybody. There's also the subtext related to big topics like PTSD or "soldier's heart" and alcoholic tendencies and the power of suggestion. That list alone is A LOT to try and cram into a novella; therefore, it was mostly brushed upon instead of one concept being dug into at a deeper level. And that's not even getting into the overly complicated supernatural aspects with the myths and the religious aspect and the spirit itself and the dreamwork. As is, the purpose was lost.

Overall, I took away a lot of interesting epiphanies about what I think is necessary when writing a sequel that I hadn't thought about before, even when studying it. It also spurred a few creative ideas of my own, specifically related to exploring the dream world and it's monsters, and to the concept of a supernatural creaturelike the moroi representing a real world issue like PTSD. If anything, what the book inspired thinking about these concepts that I found lacking, and how I would like to see it explored at a deeper level. I think, in the case of this particular story, for all of these things to be successfully conveyed they either needed to be pared down or the book needed to be longer.

If You Liked…

Online, it seems like those who have already read T. Kingfisher works or What Moves the Dead very much enjoyed this book. It really has no tie to the first book in terms of story -- honestly, it's probably why I found myself so dissatisfied by the end; I wanted my questions answered from the first book, or at least a similar core concept -- so I personally don't think anyone who read the first one would be particularly satisfied with the sequel based on the differences in style, tone, and the story itself, but that's just my opinion. To me, it seems like just another ghost story. I'd rather have picked up something akin to The Haunting of Hill House, The Woman in Black, or even The Shining.

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