Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Fantasy, Historical
In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive....
In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her...
As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.
The Secrets of Life and Death is the first installment in Rebecca Alexander's Jackdaw Hammond series. I found this story entertaining, fascinating, mysterious, dark, and suspenseful. The world building is amazing as is the different settings of 1585 Poland and modern day (2013) London.
The character depth is remarkable and it is always fun when authors intermingle infamous historical characters with contemporary fictional characters. The connection between the past and the present is slowly revealed with alternating points of view, and alternating chapters dedicated to each time frame.
The past's narrative all come from Sir Edward Kelley, while the presents actually flip flop between several characters.
The story really begins when Professor Felix is called by the police to the scene of a dead girl with sigils/occult symbols written into her skin. Since he is the supposed expert in teh occult, this is right up his alley. Felix's investigations eventually lead him the the mysterious Jackdaw (Jack) Hammond who has plenty of her own secrets.
Since this is actually the Jack's series, I'll keep most of this review focused on her. Jack has been living in the shadows since she was saved by witch Maggie Slee. You see, Jack was actually dead, and Maggie saved her with a combination of magic and potions and the inability to leave the house before she was ready. Jack and Maggie have attempted to rescue other girls who are on borrowed time, including Maggie's own daughter.
The exploits of Jack, Maggie, and eventually Felix comes full circle when a mysterious woman comes calling on Jack. This mystery woman ends up being Elizabeth Bathory who has stayed alive by drinking the blood from the so called borrowed timers. I dare say that the modern version of this story appealed to me much more than the past. I loved the addition of Sadie, who Jack and Maggie work hard to save.
I liked the fact that Sadie, although stuck between a rock and a hard place, doesn't whine and cry and pout her way through the story. I liked that even though Jack makes a really difficult choice in one of the final acts, nobody actually turns against her, but supports her. I am curious as to what happens next to Jack. I see a difficult and challenging road ahead.
I have always been curious about the infamous Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614). Bathory was supposedly a serial killer from the Báthory family of nobility in the Kingdom of Hungary. In this story, historical figures Sir Edward Kelley and John Dee are summoned by the King of Poland to find a way to fix what ails his niece. The past ends with a choice that will eventually come back to haunt both men.
In real life, Bathory was found guilty of murdering 88 girls from a variety of households. Some poor, some minor nobility. What's strange to me is how Alexander choose to make this setting Poland instead of Hungary. Perhaps some research is necessary to find out why. Perhaps it was authors prerogative. There have been a plethora of novels that have mentioned that Bathory was actually a vampire. A fact that has been debunked over and over again.
As mentioned above, Elizabeth isn't the only historical figure that Alexander mentions in this story. There is also Sir Edward Kelley and John Dee. The fact is that Kelley was an ambiguous figure in English Renaissance occultism and self-declared spirit medium who worked with John Dee in his magical investigations. But, there is no historical mention of him ever meeting Bathory in real life.
Speaking of John Dee, this isn't the first time I've come across him in fiction, nor I dare say, will it be the last. Dee was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, imperialist and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. He devoted much of his life to the study of alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. He faced the Inquisition and somehow managed not to be hung. As with Kelley, there is no historical mention of him ever meeting Bathory.
I did have some small issues with the author going back and forth between 1585 and the present time, but I quickly bit my tongue knowing that everything was tied together, and everything that happened in the past, was germane to what happens in the present. I don't normally have a problem with alternating past and present if the story remains steady and doesn't get bogged down.
I definitely want to read the second installment to see what becomes of Jack, Felix, Maggie, and especially Sadie. (Update: I was just approved for book # 2 in the series, and will be reading it shortly.) I liked where Jack's heart is in this book. She wants to do everything she can to save as many borrowed timers as she can. Sometimes she and Maggie win, sometimes they lose.