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The Crowsbrook Demons is the debut novel of English-born Canadian author Claire Horsnell. In it we’re introduced to Sarah Trevelyan, a member of her ‘family business’ of witchcraft, as she arrives in the small English village of Crowsbrook after inheriting her Great-Aunt’s cottage. She quickly finds herself embroiled in an absolutely fantastic story of demonic contracts, murder, magic, and dealing with some slightly angsty teens. A definite solid start to what looks to be a great ongoing series.

Sarah Trevelyan arrives in the sleepy village of Crowsbrook with three suitcases and a burning desire for retribution. Harbouring a dark family legacy of witchcraft, she’s hell-bent on vengeance against Nicholas Carrington, the mysterious man responsible for her best friend’s death. But Sarah soon discovers that the cottage left to her by her great-aunt holds some ominous secrets, and when two local teens are brutally murdered down by the village pond, Sarah suspects there is devilry afoot. With the help of lifelong Crowsbrookers Jessica “Jez” Elliot and her best mate, Sam Katz, Sarah starts to untangle the village’s diabolical history and the webs that bind its residents together. And as Crowsbrook is pulled ever closer to catastrophe, the three of them are about to learn that some demons are more personal than others…

As is my usual tendency when I rather enjoy a book, I’ll get the bad parts out of the way first. There’s really not much to say here. About the only thing that bothered me was the slightly higher-than-advised density of pop culture references. Some things are ubiquitous and will end up resonating with virtually everybody who reads them, but others feel as though they start slightly obscure and will only age with time. There are references to bands, and television shows, and so on which might contribute to the sense of place and time now, but I always give a little wince when I come across somebody directly referencing some ‘70s glam-pop and I have to think “Anybody under 25 is going to have no idea what you’re talking about, and it only gets worse as time passes.” I feel the same way about the snazzy cracked smartphone on the cover. Very present-day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even ten years from now, somebody might pick this up and say ‘what’s that weird screen thing on the cover?’

So, now that that’s out of the way, on to the good stuff. First of all, I very much enjoyed Sarah, Jez, and Sam as a protagonist team. Anybody who reads my reviews on a regular basis is going to be familiar with my position on things like female protagonists, and the role of gender in SFF. Sarah was a woman because Sarah was a woman. She’s not there to be a damsel and need rescuing by a man (unless you count an 80 year old Franciscan monk), or to fall hopelessly in love with somebody. Nor is she there to ‘win one back’ for women by being some superheroine-esque ass-kicker. She’s who she is, because that’s the character that Horsnell felt was in the role. It’s hard in a sub-400 page début novel to really get into the background of a character but Horsnell does a great job giving us enough to buy into what’s happening without providing a complete biography through some exposition dump.

I’m hoping that Jez and Sam stick around for future books as well, though from page one they can’t wait to get out of their village and move on to the big city, so who knows where they might end up in the future. I just really bought into their part of the story, and as it was so character-driven, that buy-in was absolutely vital. Jez is a scientist, or plans to be, and so her exposure to the supernatural really throws her for a loop, but Horsnell deftly avoids the usual tropes here. Jez neither devolves into Scully-esque constant denial despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, nor does she suddenly decide that everything she thought she knew is out the window. She strives to understand what is happening cooly and logically, through the lens of her scientific worldview, and it makes her much more relatable. Sam, likewise, comes to terms with what is going on with a realistic reaction. He’s disbelieving, until presented with proof he can’t deny, and then is rightly more concerned with ‘Ok, so what do we do?’ instead of freaking out about how things which can’t be real are.

The story itself was also a bit of a breath of fresh air to me. There are only so many ways most urban fantasy goes these days, and this story definitely shows Ms. Horsnell’s roots in horror. The elements of mystery are fairly subtle, and rather than go from demons directly to gore or serious violence, we instead spend most of the book in the realms of tension and subtle manipulation, which are much more enjoyable. The pacing was fantastic as well. Towards the climax of the story I had to consciously not skip ahead paragraphs to find out what had happened, and after a few disappointments recently, was left quite happy with the ending as well. Overall, it was one of the better débuts I’ve read in a long while and I very much look forward to future instalments.

Dan was given a published copy of The Crowsbrook Demons by the Author.

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