Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E. Cooney
Solaris, HB, £14.95
Reviewed by Stephen Frame
Saint Death’s Daughter is the story of Miscellaneous ‘Lanie’ Stones as she grows into her born role as court necromancer in the kingdom of Liriat. The story begins when Lanie is fifteen and beset by troubles; the recent passing of her estranged parents, who were executioner and assassin to the royal court of Brackenwild, the return to the family home of her psychopathic sister and the coerced husband she brings with him, the imminent loss of the family home to her debtors, her unrequited love, her allergies, her revenant house-keeper, her bothersome ghostly grand-father.
With this complex beginning, Lanie’s story reads like a domestic drama, centred as it is around the family home. This flavour of domestic drama holds throughout the book, but alongside, the narrative opens out into a wider political drama between the Brackenwild court and the rival Parliament of Rooks, in which Lanie plays a pivotal role. Tangled up in this is Lanie’s blossoming romance with her childhood friend and the deathly threat to her niece from the Blackbird Bride, the queen of the Rook Parliament.
In the opening chapters, when she is still a teenager, Lanie comes across as a passive character, constantly hiding from her sister, appeasing her or deflecting her anger. Coupled with the long prologue in the form of a letter to her sister, this could be off-putting to readers who prefer a faster-paced read. But it is worth sticking with. As the story progresses from Part 1 to Part 2, the narrative jumps to Lanie now seven years older, and it feels as though the story proper and Lanie’s real struggle begins.
The novel is a strange brew; the prose is lyrical, peppered with obscure words, leaning towards the literary for long sections and even chapters at a time. The pacing is often slow. The action set-pieces sometimes stiff. There is a tension between the tone of the writing, sometimes light and whimsical, sometimes dark and sombre. The use of comedy footnotes only adds to this, and at times, the tension is uneasy. It feels like the story doesn’t know what it wants to be or is trying to do too much.
But it is a story worth reading. Lanie’s journey from a young woman to adulthood is compelling; the rise of her necromantic power and how she learns to wield it is enthralling. The world the author has built around Lanie is intricate and beautifully realised. In general, the characters are rounded and authentic, though some of the minor characters do drift towards the shallow end of the pool from time to time. It is a story that rewards the time invested in it.