Strange Chemistry / September 4, 2012 / $9.69 print, $6.01 digital
On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.
Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can’t dodge is each other.
Blackwood is the first novel by Gwenda Bond, and I enjoyed it enough to keep my eyes open for more novels from her in future. It’s a Young Adult fantasy from Strange Chemistry, a new imprint from small speculative fiction publishers Angry Robot Books. After reading Blackwood, I’m excited to see what else Strange Chemistry will have for us!
If you’re wondering why I’m previewing a fantasy novel here, at a romance blog, wonder no more: there’s a strong romance subplot. Both the heroine, social outcast Miranda Blackwood, and the privileged hero, Phillips Rawlings, are great characters with built-in romantic tension. Miranda’s family is known on the island for carrying “bad luck” with them, and holds a grudge against Phillips which I won’t spoil here. Phillips, in contrast, regrets wronging Miranda after they first met, and though he seems to be a golden boy, he’s hiding the fact that he can hear the voices of the dead, and that he has complex feelings for Miranda.
He’d been thirteen when he first heard the spirits, the day his gram died. Unfamiliar voices chattering in his mind, so many and at such volume he could barely think. Once he decided he wasn’t going crazy (yet), it wasn’t that hard to figure out who the voices belonged to. The dead went everywhere on Roanoke Island that he did.
… Truth was Miranda’s face – then, now – had transformed the flickering uncertainty inside him into a strong, sure flame. He was certain she was in danger. Which meant he had a chance at redeeming himself.
I was won over by Miranda in the novel’s opening paragraph, when she shows that she’s a fantasy reader herself (and we later learn she’s a bit of a pop-culture geek as well).
The first time Miranda Blackwood checked the back of her closet for a portal to another world she was eleven. That was the year her mother died. After the closet, she tried other places. She wandered small patches of woods, seeking doors hidden in twisted trees, and peered into mirrors, searching for reflections that weren’t her own. But Miranda grew up. She no longer hoped to step over a secret threshold and leave Roanoke Island behind forever. Instead, she grabbed whatever escapes were in reach, no matter what they were. No matter that she stayed right here.
Then there’s this!
Miranda had a firm policy of never being the silly girl—the kind who went to see what noise that was, or who would believe she’d seen something no one else had.
Miranda’s family history is integral to the story. The family legend ran that the Blackwood name was linked to the fate of the island. None of them had ever lived anywhere else. The knowledge lived deep in her bones: Blackwoods were doomed to Roanoke Island.
Not only are they doomed to the island, her family seems to be doomed overall. Her alcoholic father serves as a symbol of what she fears to become, but she loves him and takes care of him in a way that feels realistic, another aspect of her character that moved me.
Her father…stumbled up the hall with the clumsy but somehow sure-footed steps of a professional alcoholic, weaving into the room…His face was stained a red that meant nothing anymore. His skin stayed that way. The distinctive snakeshaped birthmark that crawled up his cheek toward his temple was nearly hidden by the permanent flush. Too many years of drinking for his angry pores to ever calm down.
The fantastical mystery of modern-day disappearances on the site of such a famous historical disappearance kept me turning the pages, but what I enjoyed most in this novel were the characters. I think it will be fun to find out if other readers agree.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War One-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.