Stephen Lloyd Jones – The String Diaries

stephenlloydjones-thestringdiariesA jumble of entries, written in different hands, different languages, and different times. They tell of a rumour. A shadow. A stalking death.

The only interest that Oxford Professor Charles Meredith has in the diaries is as a record of Hungarian folklore … until he comes face to face with a myth.

For Hannah Wilde, the diaries are a survival guide that taught her the three rules she lives by: verify everyone, trust no one, and if in any doubt, run.

But Hannah knows that if her nine-year-old daughter is ever going to be safe, she will have to stop running and face the terror that has hunted her family for five generations.

And nothing in the diaries can prepare her for that.

Earlier this year I received a cunningly packaged ARC that immediately piqued my interest. Not only was the delivery intriguing, but the comparisons to A Discovery of Witches – which I enjoyed a lot – and to The Historian – whose ending ruined the book for me – made it even more appealing. The early word on The String Diaries was quite promising and I have to join the chorus, because the book made good on it promises. Jones hit all the right notes in this clever and exciting novel, which delivers both action and mystery with a dash of the supernatural.    

To elaborate on that last point: the supernatural is present in the novel and there are people who aren’t human in the book and they are integral to the plot, but… they are not monsters. I loved that the supernatural creature in this book wasn’t your everyday vampire, werewolf, witch, or what-have-you, but something I hadn’t heard of before, the Hosszu Eletek. I’ve been trying to figure out whether it really is a part of Hungarian mythology, without much success, but I still love that it’s original. The Hosszu Eletek are long-lived creatures who have the magical ability to shift their appearance to anyone they want. They look exactly like humans, but for their eyes, which a strange colour-shifting aspect to the irises. The villain of our story, Jakab, is Hosszu Eletek; amazingly he isn’t a monster because he’s Eletek, but because he’s a disturbed and obsessive individual and would have been a monster too, had he been human. I found Jones’ choice to not make his villain monstrous by dint of his character, not his supernatural nature, inspired and it made the story of Hannah and her family even more tragic.

The story is told through three different timelines: Hannah’s, which is set in the present day; Charles’, which starts in 1979; and Lukács/Jakab’s, which starts in 1873. I always like this layered way of telling a story; it lets the author give us a lot of background for the main storyline, without needing to go into an obvious info dump. And it should be clear that Hannah’s narrative is at the heart of this story, even if both Charles and Jakab are well-rounded characters with a complete arc in the book. Through these three timelines we get the complete history of the struggle that has existed between Jakab and Hannah’s family over the decades. The one thing I would have liked to have seen more of was the Eleni Society – a society formed to destroy the Eletek – as at times they were rather confusing and there seemed to be an entire layer of politicking buried in the organisation that never got explained.

Hannah was a great protagonist. In a book were much of what is happening is shrouded in mystery and nothing and no one can be trusted at face value, she forms a solid anchor, despite the pain and loss she experiences. The mind-set she’s always been taught by her parents to keep her safe, has made her live a life filled with paranoia, anxiety and constant vigilance. Despite this she’s managed to create a loving home and family with her husband Nate and her daughter Leah. Hannah displays a stubborn strength and a willingness to sacrifice anything to keep her daughter safe and to release her from the vicious struggle her family has always been engaged in. Hannah’s paranoia pervades the narrative and I started to distrust everyone at one point in the book.

The plot of the book is strong and a complicated puzzle. It had an unexpected twist toward the end, the clues for which had been seeded throughout the novel, but I had conveniently missed them. The story is told in an easily readable, pleasant style with occasional poetic flourishes, but never so they overwhelm the story.

The String Diaries is a fantastic debut that, while firmly rooted in the fantastical, will also have an appeal to more mainstream readers. If you are a fan of The Historian, A Discovery of Witches or the works of Kate Mosse, you’ll definitely want to read this one. If you enjoy a well-constructed thriller, then this is also a book for you. I enjoyed The String Diaries immensely – it’s definitely one of my top three debuts so far this year – and I can’t wait to discover more of Stephen Lloyd Jones’ work in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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