The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow wow wow.
I loved pretty much everything that went into this novel. This an Agatha Christie tribute on crack with out of this world weirdness, and also quadruple layered with stories within stories and so much wonderful complexity it will make your toes curl with writerly joy.
It was so much fun, the clues expertly layered, the body jumping mechanics painstakingly thought out with lots of juicy metaphysical interactions. I cannot fathom the plotting of this novel and I am not surprised to read that it took 3 years to write. I could write for 30 years and never produce a novel like this, so I’m dutifully and humbly awed.
As a point of craft, one specific thing fascinated me. It’s general wisdom in writing that your character cannot just have conversations to acquire clues and move the plot forward, yet that happens repeatedly in this book. I believe that what makes this work is that the conversations can only happen if had in the right order, and that the main character’s growing stash of knowledge is required to “unlock” crucial moments and conversations. Anyway, it works surprisingly well.
Go read it.
AND NOW FOR SOME SPOILERS.
I reckon this book is marmite, and my fb feed would agree that is so. A lot of complaints about the ending, and I think I know why.
7 Deaths cannot ever live up to the premise it offers. There is no possible ending which explains what is going on but doesn’t also feel cheap, because the explanations spoil the magic and also shift the focus to whatever dystopian society allowed this “prison” to exist, diluting the personal and historical feel of it.
I believe this is to do with how the speculative element has been positioned.
The speculative element is the part of your book (if you are writing spec fic or SFF is the bit that lifts it out of the real world and incorporates the fantastic. And it is something I have been grappling with A LOT in my own writing lately.
The ending of Seven Deaths is, IMO, what happens when you give full agency to your speculative element. By agency I mean, you make it a player character; it isn’t just “there are mystical trees in that forest over there”, it’s “there is a mystical dryad giving you dreams about the mystical trees in her forest.” In Seven Deaths, the MC isn’t just battling the mysterious landscape of Blackheath; he is in active confrontation with the Plague Doctor and various other characters who are effectively supernatural or speculative.
If that sounds confusing, let me put it this way for those who have read Seven Deaths. Hypothetically, how would the book feel different if there was no plague doctor? And the house just existed as an inanimate thing that couldn’t be reasoned with? It would be lonelier, but also more personal; no explanation would be possible.
Of course, that would created lots of plot problems, like who the fuck orchestrated all of this–which having a Plague Doctor solved. Direction and agency does that. But giving agency to the speculative element also required that the writer invent a hierarchy and order and the concept of Blackheath as a punishment arena, which in the end felt like deux ex machina. Hence unsatisfactory ending.
The reason this happens is that having agency embodied in a character makes them possible to reason with but also shifts the focus to the societies surrounding that person. Claire North runs into this problem with EVERY single one of her novels; she tries to give a “face” to her speculative elements, encompassing them as individuals with reasoning who interact with the MC, which then means she ends up creating secret societies for them, which then means the books focus on the politics of said secret societies. The same thing (imo) happens here as the focus invariably shifts to Plague Doctor(s) and their squabbling.
Speculative Element, in short, is like a wild demon spirit. If it is not properly contained and caged within the narrative, it swells and expands and dominates and before you know it you’re in a dystopian scifi story about bizarre holographic prison realities and feeling very dubious indeed. Sometimes that’s what you want, as with Paperflesh, but sometimes it takes your story and does a runner.
In my own writing – for PAPERFLESH, I embraced the expansiveness of the speculative element, giving it agency and explanation, and allowed the focus to be on the political machinations of Devon’s bookeater society. But for CASABLANCA I am extremely concerned that the speculative element remain caged within the narrative so that the focus stays personal and close without expanding too far.
All that said, I still loved this book. I loved the experience of reading it (which is an inversion on a comment I’ve had from some publisher rejections – they “didn’t love the experience” of reading some of my stuff… now I know what they mean, though in reverse!) It’s great fun, brilliantly written, extensively plotted, wonderfully complex and layered.
As for the ending; well, it was an interesting and thought-provoking ending, for me, with ample opportunity to think about craft and speculative elements and scope.