Wednesday, October 28, 2015

#Wednesday Review & Excerpt - The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander (Historical, Urban Fantasy)

Series: Jackdaw Hammond # 1
Format: Paperback, 384 pages
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Publisher: Broadway Books
Source: Library
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. 

Chapter 1

Another crime scene, a dead body and possible evi- dence of sorcery. Felix stood in the car park, and watched the activity in the railway station in Exeter. His gut squirmed at the thought of what he would see. He assumed the police became accustomed to seeing bodies, but he never had, despite spending time in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, where human life had become disposable. He pulled his collar up against the rain.

The station was lit by temporary lights on stands, illuminating one of the carriages of a static train. Felix paused at the entrance. The last crime scene he had attended involved an elderly woman stabbed to death, and her yawning wounds had haunted him for weeks. The police had consulted him on some “black magic” graffiti, which had turned out to be the logo of a death metal band. He took a deep breath, blew it out. Hopefully, his involvement in this case would be unnecessary as well.

A movement caught his attention as he walked across the car park. There was a woman standing in the rain a dozen yards from the ticket office, looking through the railings toward the train. She appeared to be watching the police as they worked, but her posture was odd and she didn’t look like a chance spectator observing a tragedy. The rain poured off a hat, the brim sheltering her face, which was whitened by flashes from the scene. She wore a long coat, with water streaming down it, and what looked like boots. She was definitely female; her features looked delicate in a long face, framed by short fair hair that was haloed against the arc lights. She was young, he thought, younger than him, anyway. Her attention to the scene was intense.

He turned away and approached the officer at the gate.

“Sorry sir, the station is closed. There’s a bus to take passengers to the next station.” The policeman had water running from the edge of a cap, dropping in silver lines down the wide shoulders of his coat.

“I was asked to attend. I’m supposed to ask for Detective Inspector Soames.”

“I see. Can I have your name, sir?”

“Felix Guichard. Professor Guichard, from the university.”

The man nodded to another officer, a woman who stared straight through Felix, then looked away.

Felix’s eyes began to adjust to the glare. Through the gate, he could see cast-iron columns supporting the roof of the station, the grandeur somewhat marred by billboards and modern wooden benches. A police barrier obscured the view of the window of one of the carriages. A number of people were walking about in white suits. Flashes lit up one carriage, greening the scene with afterimages.

A bleached figure beckoned to him. “Professor? Professor Gwitchard? Is that how you pronounce it?”

“Well, it’s Gwee-shar. It’s a French name.” A gap appeared in the ranks and he walked through to the white-suited officer.

“DI Dan Soames.” The man’s hand was warm and solid in the drafty, wet station. “We were hoping you could have a look at this scene for us. You’re a professor of what, exactly?”

“My subject is the culture of belief systems, religions and superstitions. I’ve worked with your chief constable before, on a case of a witchcraft killing in London.” Inside he was shivering. Soames was maybe five foot eight or nine, inches shorter than Felix, but had a restrained energy that made him seem like a larger man.

“Well, these markings have us stumped. Any ideas why someone would draw all over a dead kid are welcome. You’ll have to suit up.”

Felix followed him into a tented area where a young man helped him into a one-piece coverall and booties.

“Tuck your hair in, sir,” the young officer said. “We’re still looking for DNA and trace evidence.”

Felix pushed his curly fringe back. A single flash from a camera illuminated an image, which glowed for a moment in his brain.

It was the face of a girl, just a teenager, blond hair stuck to damp glass, over pearl-colored skin. She must have slid down the window, her eyebrow dragged into a curve, and her open eye stared, it seemed, straight at Felix.

Soames’s voice scratched into Felix’s awareness.

“Professor of superstitions and religions?”

“My subject is social anthropology, but I specialize in esoteric belief systems.”

“Esoteric what?”

Felix tore his attention away from the fading image of the girl. “Beliefs outside of a culture’s mainstream. My PhD was in West African beliefs. Witchcraft, sorcery, magic.”

Soames shrugged his shoulders and tucked the hood of his coverall closer around his face. “We’re investigating the disappearance of several young girls from the town.”

“Oh, I see. Is this one of them?”

“Possibly. The thing is, there are symbols—come and have a look. We were told you’ve done this sort of consulting before and attended crime scenes.”

Felix followed him along the platform and into the doorway of the carriage. “A few times. Do you know what happened? How she died?”

“We’re not sure. It looks like an overdose, but it’s too early to tell.”

He led the way toward the end of the carriage where a scrum of white figures was strobed with camera flashes.

“Can we have a look at the body, Jim?” At Soames’s approach, people fell back a little, some to the other side of the aisle, some to the corridor between the two carriages. The faint sour odor of the toilet was signposted with a glowing “Vacant” sign.

Felix squeezed between two officers to look down on the body.

At first, tiny details hit him. Her hand, lying on its back, her fingers curved like a dead crab on the beach. Her lips were distorted by the glass into a half smile, their lavender skin parted to show a few gleaming teeth. The space in front of her was covered with litter left for the train cleaner at the end of the journey. Felix wondered how many people had discarded used paper cups and newspapers on her table, walking past the slumped girl without realising she was dead.

Soames gripped his shoulder. “You OK, Professor?”

“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes. You said there were symbols?”

Soames nodded to the man sitting beside the body, and he lifted the bottom of her T-shirt with gloved hands.

Felix flinched as her pale skin was revealed. Red marks criss-crossed her body, and for a moment he thought they were injuries. Then he realized she had been marked with red pen.

“That’s an Enochian symbol.” As the shirt was lifted higher and the slack skin on her belly was revealed, more symbols appeared in two concentric curves. “And that one, too. I don’t recognize all of them. Two circles of what look like sigils.” He bent forward, to get a better look, and caught the flowery scent of clean laundry and the acrid smell of voided urine from the body. Sadness rolled over him, and he looked at her face for a moment. So young. The surface of her eye was just touching the glass, starting to lose its gloss as it dried.

“We’ll photograph them at the postmortem.” Soames stepped back into the aisle, away from the actual scene. “So, what are these drawings?”

“Enochian symbols. They’re supposed to be an alphabet given to John Dee, an Elizabethan scholar. He got them through a man called Edward Kelley, who channeled angels for him.”


“Like a psychic speaking for the dead.” Felix’s mind was flying through memories. The arrangement of the characters in a circle seemed familiar.

“You believe all this?” Soames was staring at him.

“Of course not, but some people do. These symbols are used in ritual magic.”

“Like black magic, Satanism?”

“Colloquially, yes, I suppose so.” Felix leaned in for a closer look. “But black magic wouldn’t necessarily use Enochian sigils, and I can’t see any pseudo-Christian shapes. I think you can rule out Satanism.”


“Designs that are supposed to construct magical intent. Magic talismans and lucky charms sometimes have them.” Felix stepped back, his legs shaky, whether with tiredness or adrenaline he couldn’t tell. “I’ve never heard of them being used in this way.”

“After we photograph them at the postmortem, we’ll let you have a better look. The pathologist says there appear to be more on her back.”

Felix took a deep breath, and stepped out of the circle of gender­less suits gathered around the girl. She glowed in the light of arc lamps, propped over the backs of surrounding seats. Soames followed him.

“You OK?” Soames brushed the hood back from his face.

“Yes, fine. It just seems sad—she’s so young.”

“First thoughts?”

“I’ll wait for the photographs and then do a bit of research. Inspector, are the symbols in complete circles?”

Soames nodded. “We think so; we’ll know more at the post- mortem. It looks like two concentric rings of maybe a dozen or so shapes in each, drawn in some kind of pen. Why do you ask?”

“I’m not sure . . . I think I’ve seen something like it before, that’s all.”

Soames ushered him off the train and started stripping off the white suit. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you to keep this confidential, Professor.”

“No, of course.”

Soames smiled. “We don’t want a big ‘black-magic sacrifice’ headline in the local press.”

“I understand. But there is no evidence, in the UK anyway, of Satanist sacrifices of any kind.”

Soames’s smile faded. “What about that boy, hacked up in London? I hear you were consulted on that one.”

“That was a different kind of case altogether. A Muti killing, taking body parts to make magical charms. Terrible, but from a different belief system completely.” Felix dropped the suit and booties into a bin. “Anyway, you said this case is probably an overdose?”

“Maybe. She was a known drug user and prostitute. But we have three other young women who have gone missing over the last few months. Normally, we trace them to London or they’ve run off with boyfriends, but we haven’t had even a whisper about these girls. No texts, e-mails, no social networking, nothing. Then one turns up dead.”

“Well, get the pictures to me and I’ll do the research. I noticed someone in the car park. A woman, she looked distressed, like she might have known the girl . . .”

“What did she look like?” Soames scanned the station.

“I suppose, medium height, slim, attractive, shortish hair . . .  blond. Striking. Thirties, maybe, it was hard to tell.” He looked across the tarmac, the rain drifting through cones of light onto parked vehicles.

The woman had vanished.

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