Your average fantasy novel does not give a particularly accurate view of the Middle Ages. Generally speaking, it is an amalgamation of several different eras, ranging from the early medieval times all the way into the 1600s. The problems of “ye olden times” are generally glossed over as well. Not so in Something Red.
Something Red is an atmospheric and poetic horror fantasy that combines certain folk beliefs of England and Ireland with an accurate and beautiful picture of medieval times. Hob, a young boy on the cusp of manhood, is taken in by a group of traveling performers after his former priest-guardian becomes too old to properly care for him. Molly, head of the troupe, is a dignified Irishwoman with strange healing powers. With her is her lover, Jack, a large, silent man, and her granddaughter, Nemain. As they travel through the harsh north winter of England, they find themselves stalked by a malevolent presence. A remote monastery, a cheery inn, and a fortified castle cannot protect them. It becomes apparent that they must fight it themselves.
The characters of this book are so strongly realized that it is not hard to lose yourself in this book. Hob makes for a very realistic boy, sometimes dense, sometimes clever, often mystified by the adults around him. Molly is a strong, motherly woman, very likable in her ability to be dignified at one moment, and then quaffing ale and throwing knives in the next. Nemain mystifies Hob, for reasons the reader guesses long before Hob himself does, and Jack’s mysterious past with the Crusades haunts his every action. Then you have the monks, offering hospitality to all but trained to defend themselves, quietly turning their heads whenever Molly’s healing abilities go beyond the norm. The blithe innkeeper, clearly smitten with the still-beautiful Molly, and his saucy daughter that catches Hob’s eye. You have the people of the castle, simultaneously noble yet voluble, a mixture of good and bad.
The world is also laid out with such loving detail that you can’t help but feel yourself to be there. The Middle Ages are displayed here in their beauty and their horror. We see through Hob’s eyes, and through his eyes, some clean hay, a warm fire, and unlimited ale are luxuries. Resting after a day of tugging on the ox is bliss to him.
Reviews have described it as “tense” and “nonstop action”, but that is not true at all. Most of it is fairly mundane. The problem of the evil presence haunts the characters, yet for the most part the story takes its time, lazing through this time past as we meet the various characters and get to know our protagonist and his family better. It is only when things come to a head that the plot goes crazy, and it is that which makes the climax so effective. The falling action gives a beautiful view of the future and a sense of the legendary.
This is a wonderful novel, something that draws you in and never lets you go. The subtleness makes it a strangely comfortable read.