Sometimes, I find an author I initially like a lot, but as I keep reading, my interest starts to wane. This is what happened to me with Bolton’s books. Sacrifice was excellent. The first two Lacey Flint novels (with one exception that I’ll get to in a minute) were decidedly fun. But the third one kind of lost me. It felt like it was drifting. I couldn’t really put my finger on why, and that bothered me more than anything. I hate not being able to articulate what bothers me about a book. I’m not sure what prompted me to finally pick up Blood Harvest, but I did, and I’m glad. It was an enjoyable book, but more importantly, it helped me figure out what bothered me about the previous books.
First, the good stuff (so, obviously, spoilers). The book comes right out of the gate with a weird creepiness. Multiple dead children buried in an old grave. Strange voices seeming to come from nowhere. Inhuman looking children no one can see but other children. Little text inserts of something watching the family. Creepy and delightful! It actually felt a bit supernatural, which wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a great way to start the book. Initially, we get a lot of short chapters flipping between the different povs. It took me right into the book. Is there anything more entertaining that creepy ass kids in a churchyard? Okay, yes, the trope is overused, but it can be super fun, and I hadn’t read one of these in quite a while. One of the things I really liked was that a huge portion of the book took place from the perspective of the kids. Tom was the one telling us the story of his family. Every adult perspective is from outside the family. So instead of the typical story where the parent is telling us about the weird things their kids are doing, we get to know exactly why the kids are doing where they’re doing. The parental input is irrelevant. Tom’s innocence gets to drive the story.
He doesn’t have the worldly exposure to understand deformities. He doesn’t default to the most logical solution. It actually makes more sense to him that this girl who keeps showing up isn’t human and that she means them harm. And he believes in blind loyalty. When Joe doesn’t defend him to their parents, he starts to ignore him. He shuts himself off from everyone in order to protect his sister. He and Joe recognize that this town isn’t safe for little girls. But they can’t articulate why to the adults. They just know that if they’re not careful, their sister will be hurt. Kids can be damn intuitive. He recognizes that Millie is in trouble long before anyone else in the book, except maybe Joe.
The two boys know that there is something strange about their new town. A town run by a single family for as long as anyone can remember. A family so deeply rooted in the community that they could shut down a church for a decade. One of the criticisms I’ve read about the book is that no town would allow this family to have so much control, but that’s just not true. In these small, closed off towns, old families do gain a kind of power. They have been part of the fabric of the community for so long that they become revered, almost like elders. They’re who you look to because they know everything. Everyone. They’ve always been there. They have their finger on the pulse of the community and can steer the interpretation of events. Even what events even get noticed. They determine who is worthy and who is not. They influence how new people are accepted.
And that is one of the places I had trouble with the novel. Not that the power of the family, but I just don’t know that I believe that Tom’s family would have been allowed to build their house where they did. They’re new to town. They’re American. They aren’t religious. They aren’t farmers. They are everything the town isn’t. If anyone was going to be allowed to build here, it would not be them. But for some reason they’re allowed to move to town and build their house basically in the church graveyard? Above a system of underground streams and a giant monastic tomb/crypt/cavern thing? The actual physical realities of building where they did don’t seem realistic. But they do work well for the confines of the novel. A house that backs on to a graveyard, with the closest grave to them being the one for a baby girl not that different from the little girl in the home – a recipe for spooks. Nothing is creepier. And it gives absolute credit to the adults’ belief that Tom’s actions are simply the result of an over active imagination. Even when Millie goes missing for an evening and is found in the strangest of places (honestly, I can’t really picture this beam/gallery area they were talking about, but I’m not a church person, so maybe this isn’t a problem for other people), the adults still aren’t 100% certain Tom isn’t making it all up.
Watching the deteriorating relationship between the boys is more interesting than expected. Here are a ten and six year old with a more complex relationship than most of the adults in the book… or at least the relationship between Harry and Evi. And here’s where we get to the part of the book that I didn’t like. The part that let me figure out what was wrong with the other books – unnecessarily melodrama. The mysteries are so interesting, that they deaden the terrible writing in the romance sections. It’s almost like this is two books. The awesome mystery. The terrible romance. Remember back in the first paragraph when I mentioned that there was something about the second Lacey Flint novel that I didn’t like? Yeah. It was Evi. I read the book long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly what her storyline was, but I remember her whinging about Harry and her injury. I remembered that she wasn’t with Harry, but don’t remember what separated them. But that meant that I knew they would get together in this novel as soon as Harry showed up.
Both of these characters have the potential to be awesome. Evi is a therapist with a not immediately obvious physical disability. This could be used to give her insight into her patients. But in Blood Harvest, she spends most of her time worried because her patient has a crush on the man she’s thinking about dating. Okay, yes, this is a legitimate problem. And a serious one for a good psychiatrist. But it never feels like Evi is genuinely torn. She makes the situation worse than it actually is. Evi is a drama queen. That’s what she is. She just moons and whines and poor mes until I did not care about her. It’s exactly what she did in Dead Scared. Grow some ovaries and woman up, lady.
Harry is a new clergyman in town. Reopening a church where a child died. In a community run by the family of that child. And he wears shorts and running gear most of the time. He’s a ginger! He drives fast cars. And he’s young. He is the rebel pastor. His character could have gone one of two ways – clichéd or rad. Instead, it went an unexpected third way – moony, annoying teenage boy. He can’t look at Evi with swooning over her eyes and her hair and her purple coat. Oh her eyes, I’m falling into them. Oh her eyes, are they the same ones I saw before. Oh her eyes. Oh her lips. Oh her blah, blah, fucking blah. Now, I’m always up for a good relationship with the clergy. It can be fun. Especially when paired with a person of science. But instead it reads so, so, so teeny. And bad teeny. I would have hated this relationship in a YA novel. Written for adults, it’s just not believable. Or entertaining. Harry is supposed to be dealing with the fact that a boy is missing and three children have died in his church and instead he’s all “Date me, Evi. Who cares about your patient with a crush on me who is the mother of one of the dead girls.” It’s a little hard to take him seriously. If Evi and Harry had simply worked together and Gillian had suspected a relationship that didn’t really exist, it could have been a great sub-story. It’s the bones of what was there, but it’s draped in the frilly. The romance is like ruffles on an otherwise grown up dress.
But let’s end this review on a good note. Ignore the romance. Talk about the serious stuff. There were two possible suspects for who was responsible for the murders and disappearances. Two possible, but only one real probable. Hidden in plain sight in the power family. The mother of the first dead girl. Killed because the mother has been driven to sociopathy by her pedophile grandfather. I’ve read some reviews that the ending went too dark, but that is one of the things I really love about Bolton. When she goes dark, she goes really dark. The darkness goes back to the power of the family. In a town this small, people will know what’s going on, but no one is going to say anything. This girl and her sister have been abused by her grandfather for so long that they know no other way. They know it’s wrong, and they’re no longer in his age preference, but instead of turning him in or hurting him, Jenny uses other methods. She’s been forced to turn off her emotions in order to survive, and that serves her to keep him in line. If he shows interest in a child, she kills it. Not every child, just the ones he really likes. And she doesn’t pretend that she does it to save the girls. She does it solely to keep him in check. She murders these girls to punish him. In a way, she likes the killing. Maybe not the act itself (although that is a possibility), but the results. She likes the pain it causes. I wish the entire story had stuck to the story of Jenny, Tom, Gillian, and the superstitions running rampant in this town. I’ll probably read more Bolton novels (they’re fluffy mystery fun), but if Evi is mentioned anywhere in the blurb, I’m out.