She hums and she shivers

The Hum and the Shiver - Alex Bledsoe

I liked this book much more than Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series. It was written better, and its story was deeper and more mature.

The protagonist, a twenty-year-old soldier of the US army Bronwyn, was injured in Iraq. She has returned home to recuperate, but her homecoming is not at all restful. In pain from her healing wounds, obviously suffering from PTSD and numb from painkillers, with her mind hazy and her spirits low, Bronwyn is tired and disoriented. She wants to find her unique ‘song’, but neither the army, nor the small town where she grew up, nor her family offers her a safe place.

She belongs to the Tufa, a hard, mysterious people living in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Always rebellious, even as a child, she never wanted to conform to her pre-assigned role in her community. That’s why she enlisted in the army two years ago: to escape from her heritage. But now she is home, and her heritage demands its due.

Torn between her people’s past and future, between the modern technology and the centuries-old traditions of magic and music, Bronwyn is searching for her place, for her own melody. Her path is fraught with mistakes and detours, as she repeatedly asks herself: “Who am I? What should I do?”

I like Bronwyn. She is a multidimensional character, a complicated young woman with strong opinions of right and wrong. A fighter with an intense conscience, she is an instigator of change. Of course, her hankering for change brings her nothing but trouble, but she copes with her troubles with honor intact, if maybe slightly tarnished. To my relief, she is not ‘a chic with a sword,’ the archetype that has recently invaded the modern fantasy genre. Instead of weapons, she uses her common sense and morality, her assertive nature to win her battles.

Like Bronwyn, several secondary characters in the novel are also on the road of self-discovery, trying to find their niche. Self-discovery seems to be one of the dominating themes of this novel. Its other theme is much more disturbing – the ethics and legitimacy of killing.

Can you kill in peace time? Who has the right to make that call? Are there any special circumstances when killing is permissible or necessary? When a soldier is ordered to kill, are morals involved? What if someone is so evil, caused so much grief, that he needs to be eliminated to prevent more suffering? Who must assume the responsibility to kill him? Where is the borderline between a just killing and a murder?  

Such difficult questions raise their heads in the course of the novel, and although the author doesn’t shy from expressing his views, he invites his readers to formulate their own answers.

The pacing is deceptively slow, covering the day-to-day lives and seemingly inconsequential events, but the pages turn very fast. The author is a master of intrigue, and his skill kept me glued to the book until I finished it.   

A couple details I didn’t like in this book, although they didn’t cause me to lower its rating. First – the secret of the Tufa. Bledsoe keeps dropping hints at some otherworldly origins of the people, at their mystic powers, but even as far into the book as page 116, nothing was clear. Who are the Tufa and what they can do is only revealed towards the end. Can’t say it was a big surprise though. The allusions are sprinkled throughout the tale, and the anticipation keeps the tension high, keeps the readers guessing. Still, I think the full disclosure should’ve happened earlier in the story. It would’ve read better.

My second objection: nothing is resolved by the last page. Many subplots are left dangling, like in real life. Even Bronwyn isn’t yet sure what will become of her, although by the end she at least has some inkling. Certain controversies have been resolved, while others haven’t been touched yet. Overall, such ambivalence leaves the readers vaguely dissatisfied and hankering for more. Maybe that was the point.