Although the Collins clan is steeped in Appalachian magic, Henry has never paid it much attention. But when his younger sister dies mysteriously Henry can’t shake the feeling that the decades-old feud between his family and another is to blame.
Strange things are happening at the edge of reality, deep in the forests and mountains of West Virginia. Let Jason Jack Miller take you to a place where love is forever even when death isn’t, where magic doesn’t have to be seen to be believed, where a song might be the only thing that saves your soul.
Hellbender came as a complete surprise. I’d expected an urban fantasy with some supernatural elements and all that entails; instead I got a beautiful gothic story which mixed lyrical descriptions with some downright bloody dialogue and action. It was a pleasant surprise from an author I hadn’t heard of before. While it was a great story, I did have some issues with the book.
The setting is key in Hellbender, I don’t think the story would have worked even half so well if set in any other place. It is set in the Appalachian Mountains – a region I don’t know much about except that it’s a mountain range in the Eastern part of the US – but in Hellbender the Appalachians are so much more than just a mountain setting. They create their own seemingly rather isolated communities, which often have a history going back for over a hundred years, and which grown a people unique to their ranges. However large the places named in the book maybe, they always felt like they were small, and everyone knows everyone, their grandfather and their aged horse. It’s that kind of small, rural village feeling, though there seems to be more logging and mining going on than farming. Miller creates an incredibly atmospheric setting – that at times seems almost otherworldly – that leaves the reader enchanted and creeped out at the same time.
Dropped into this environment is a cast of great characters, though I did have one or two complaints in this department. Actually all complaints boil down to same source: motivation. There were several characters whose motivations weren’t really clear to me. Mostly this applied to the bad guys in the story, the Lewises, and their cronies, but there were a few good guys as well. To start with the bad guys, I didn’t get why they were still keeping on with the feud. I understood the basis of the dispute, but why did it go on after all this time? And why were some ‘outsiders’, such as Lucinda Tesso, so invested in the fight? Similarly, on the Collins’ side, there are Greg and Preston. While I could kind of understand Preston’s motivation, his fiancée is a Collins, I didn’t see why Greg would get himself mixed up in it. However, I didn’t get hung up on these questions, mostly because Miller swiftly moves on with the action and I kept telling myself that blood feuds aren’t logical and reasonable anyway.
What I did like was that the protagonists were both awesome and flawed. And Miller has no problem letting his female protagonists take care of themselves and has them taking physical damage just as much as his male protagonists. Henry, the main character and the narrator of the story, is very much a sceptic when it comes to the Appalachian magic and I appreciated his struggles to accept the reality of his situation. I also like his reluctance to get drawn into the feud after his sister is killed to the point of taking off and not getting in touch with his family for over six months. However, when he does decide to do something about the Lewises, he fully commits and there is no going back. As for his love interest, Alex, I loved her spirit. When she initially re-enters his life, I was all set to go, oh no, not another damsel-in-distress, but she turned out to be far more interesting, even if there were some oblique Romeo-and-Juliet vibes going round. I liked that she decides to act for herself and not rest in the bosom of the Collins family and wait till the menfolk finish the feud. She’s not the only one, Rachael and Katy are similarly strong females and I really enjoyed Miller’s characterisation of these women.
Overall the plot worked well, though in conjunction with my questions about the motivations for some of the characters, there were also some things in the plot that had my raising my eyebrows in wonder. For example, how on earth can there be so many bodies and no one gets arrested? I know the Lewis family have bought off the local sheriff, but I’d expect with those numbers, outside law enforcement would come into it at some point? What about the families of the Lewis workers that get killed? Also, the way the object that started all the problems gets passed down didn’t make sense to me. How come Alex gets to have it? Why doesn’t it pass to Ben, the eldest son’s eldest son, or to Katy, the daughter’s eldest daughter? But as with the motivational questions, these thoughts quickly got lost as I was swept on by the action. Hellbender is a very fast-moving book. There are moments where Miller allows his characters and his readers to breathe, but these never last long and are always followed by more and even more serious action.
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed my time spent in the Appalachian Mountains, courtesy of Hellbender. Miller succeeds in drawing the reader into his setting through loving description and the atmosphere wafts off the page. Hellbender is a great example of a modern gothic horror story and makes for a wonderful read.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.