Gwenda Bond – Blackwood

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.

The second of Strange Chemistry’s launch titles, Blackwood had an intriguing set-up. A modern day fantasy based on one of the US’s biggest mysteries? Count me in. In addition the book was blessed with a gorgeous, colourful cover that is sure to draw your eye when on display, so I was excited to get stuck in. It turns out I was right to be excited, but I ended up loving the book for completely different reasons than I’d expected. For it wasn’t the historical elements that drew me in or the theatrical aspects of the story; no, I got completely taken in by the story’s female lead and titular character, Miranda Blackwood.

Bond has created some great characters in Miranda and Phillips. Miranda, like her namesake from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is confined to the island; if she leaves the island she’ll go crazy within ten paces—at least that is what she’s always been told. After losing her mother, Miranda was cast in the role of parent to her own parent due to her father’s alcoholism. Because of this, she’s quite independent and self-sufficient. She’s a loner due to reputation, not by inclination, something reinforced by her friendship with Polly and the rest of the theatre crew. These are all off-islanders and as such not as aware of her family’s infamous reputation. She’s wonderfully nerdy and despite her situation in the book quite funny in her observations of the world around her. While Miranda is a central part of the supernatural mystery playing out in the island, Phillips is the stranger of the two, as his link to the supernatural is apparent from the get go. I loved the nature of his gift and the way that, in hindsight, it reflected what happened on the island. Phillips himself is an intriguing character as well. Formed by the pressures of his gift, he has used his inventive nature to get himself sent away to boarding school for bad behaviour. He seems a good kid at heart though and when he sees Miranda on TV after the disappearances and his dad calls him home to the island, he’s drawn home despite his fear for the consequences on his gift, which has been quiescent for the time he has been away.

The relationship between Miranda and Phillips is a strange one. There was an insta-connection, as demonstrated by Phillips’ reaction to seeing Miranda on TV and her memories of him before he left. However, I hesitate to call it insta-love, since while there is a clear attraction there and the insinuation of a continued relationship, they don’t declare their undying commitment on page fourteen. And this connection also serves a further function for Miranda; she seems to lose herself and her grief in her attraction to Phillips, almost as if to avoid dealing with her feelings about her father’s disappearance from her life. While one could argue about how realistic this reaction is, to me it rang true as a coping mechanism. Whatever the reason for their getting together, in the end I found myself rooting for the two of them and hoping that they’d get through it together.

Blackwood‘s setting on Roanoke is great, the island is a wild and moody place and its inhabitants everything you’d expect from a small island community. The mystery, which is so inextricably linked with its island setting, was still surprising, despite being rooted in history. I hadn’t expected the direction it took at all and I really was drawn into the spookiness of Bond’s explanation for the disappearance of Roanoke’s original colonists. As stated above, I really enjoyed the incorporation of the historical and theatrical elements into the story. This theatricality wasn’t just limited to the scenes set in the theatre itself, but also showed in some of the characters, such as Dr. Roswell, Dr. Dee and, in some ways, Phillips as well.

All of these components were drawn together by a smooth and assured writing style into a truly engaging story, littered with pop culture and geeky references, which I was pleased to discover I still got, despite being in my thirties. However, this did make me wonder how the book will age; arguably in ten years time, some of the references might be too obscure for its intended audience. Regardless, Blackwood is a wonderful debut novel from Gwenda Bond. I really enjoyed the book and I can’t wait for her next one.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • I wasn't too keen on the insta-connection, but I have to admit that Miranda and Phillips made a rather good couple. I actually felt something for that romance, which is kind of rare for me in YA fiction. Though I think that insta-connection is responsible for one of the other things that bugged me about the novel, and that was that one of them could make a leap of logic about the situation, and the other would grasp it without question or need for real clarification.

    Still, you're right in that it was a good read, and I though the take on the disappearance was an interesting on. Great review, as always!

    I'll be interviewing the author on my blog later this week, if you're curious. :)

  • Thanks, Ria! And I hadn't even thought about the inst-connection affecting the leaps of logic, though to be honest I didn't really notice those.

    And cool! I'll be so there to check that out :-D

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