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The Tone Poet is the debut novel of American author Mark Rickert, and tells the very dark and disturbing tale of composer Cameron Blake as he is drawn into a nightmarish vision of music and murder as dark happenings come to the small town of Holloway. The kind of suspenseful story where you can already feel the ending is in sight, but you can’t look away even as you head towards it. Add in some interesting things to say on the subject of religion and spirituality and a healthy dose of music, and you’ve got an excellent debut and an excellent story in its own right.

When a family car accident leaves six-year-old Cameron Blake for dead, his body is engulfed by a light that sings extraordinary music. Once his heart beats again, the music fades and is gone. This is astral music, and it haunts Cameron for the rest of his life. As an adult, Cameron is a renowned composer, but he feels unsatisfied. He’s spent his life trying to recapture those astral tones he heard at death’s doorstep. Unable to grasp the elusive music, his latest commission has left him burned out and disillusioned. He meets Maestro Leonin Bloom who has the lofty aspirations to perform the musical expression of the creative universe and he needs Cameron’s help. Cameron travels to Holloway where Bloom keeps his orchestra and a private concert hall. But something is unwittingly off in the small mountain town. A woman is missing, the nights are haunted by strange music, and Cameron is drawn into darkness rather than enlightenment.

My foremost conclusion about The Tone Poet is that the degree to which this is obviously a debut novel is thankfully overshadowed by the strength of the plot. There were points in the narrative where it was a little painfully clear that this work could have used a few more line edits. Fairly simple things like overusing the same word in the same sentence and so forth. I know the copy I read was an ARC, and some of these things are going to be corrected, but since I acquired this copy only two months before publication, I’m not sure these sorts of things will be corrected. That said, they aren’t prevalent, just occasionally flow-disrupting and off-putting. They may not even be especially noticeable to somebody who reads fewer books at a slower pace than I do. It’s rare that a debut doesn’t feel like a debut, and those authors are rightly celebrated. Give Rickert another go at it, and things will be much better, as evidenced by his strength at other elements of storytelling.

Foremost among those strengths is, as you might expect from the title, the tone. Rickert does a phenomenal job setting a very creepy and inevitable tone. You know almost immediately that things are going to go very badly for Cameron. As soon as you meet Maestro Bloom, the tension starts to build and really doesn’t let up throughout the entire story. It begins very subtly, and as you get closer to the climax of the story (perhaps I should say as the crescendo builds) things quickly spiral out of control into some legitimately disturbing scenes. Even the interludes of calm which separate the horror beats have an ineffable sense of macabre about them. The story breaks for a nice happy moment, and you watch with a sort of fascinated horror, wondering whether something terrible is about to interrupt it. As a film, there’d be a very Hitchcock sense of ‘things look normal, but there’s some discord in the soundtrack and you’re just convinced that this doesn’t end well.’ It was really excellent stuff. I’m not a major connoisseur of horror in general, so don’t take my praises as being especially qualified, but if you like a really slow burn on your tension with some H.R. Giger stylings, you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Tone Poet.

The role of music in The Tone Poet was also very well done. Rickert grew up around the music industry due to his grandfather, who was a musician and manager in Nashville, and it shows. As a musician myself, I really appreciated the inclusion of various bits of terminology from composition and performance, and their adaptation into the dark cosmology of Maestro Bloom. The journey, more metaphysical and metaphorical than real, of Cameron’s ‘Attunement’ with Bloom resonated with me quite deeply. The dark and twisted musical instruments, the ‘Archetypes’ that Bloom’s orchestra performed upon were very definitely channelling Giger to the point that I could only wish he were still alive to provide some illustrations.

Altogether, I quite enjoyed The Tone Poet, and was happy (as such) to be genuinely disturbed a few times from the imagery and the storytelling. I’m quite looking forward to more from Mark Rickert, and The Tone Poet was an excellent debut. Dark, creepy, with compelling characters and a setting and plot which are just begging for a movie adaptation. Mark, if you’re reading this: Hold out for the Kronos Quartet for the soundtrack as long as you have to.

Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from BQB Publishing via Netgalley

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