Widow’s Welcome by D.K. Fields
Head of Zeus, pb, £7.37
Review by Ian Green
In a world where stories have political and spiritual power, finding the truth can be difficult. In the dirty streets of Fenest, capital of the Union of Realms, a body is found with its lips sewn shut. Detective Cora Gorderheim is tasked with finding the murderer, diving headlong into the intrigue of a system where stories are everything.
The world of Fenest is intriguingly drawn, an industrial era fantasy that conjures images of Victorian London, embracing tropes and joys of both noir and fantasy. What emerges is a beautiful thing, Raymond Chandler by way of Brandon Sanderson. Betting houses and brothels push up against pennysheet newspapers and a bureaucratic ruling class. Politics is a labyrinth of opaque rules- the Realms tell stories, a selected few of the public vote which tale is best, and this determines the ruler of the realms until the next telling. It is an interesting system, so clearly absurd and yet so stringently and seriously adhered to. Hints of old wars indicate what may drive this world to carry on in such a strange manner, and the obsession with stories carries into the personal and spiritual as well. The denizens of Fenest are forever speaking to the Audience, a pantheon of listeners who want a story, each with their favoured types of tales. Cora is a stolidly likeable protagonist, smoking and betting and endlessly dismissive of her colleagues. She falls into the mould of the troubled detective easily, but there is nuance and complexity in her relationship with the underside of Fenest and a fragility in some of her quieter moments that is compelling.
Where Widow’s Welcome absolutely shines is in its nested narratives. In a world where stories have such power, it is inevitable that stories will be told. As well as tales told from character to character, there are also a few larger pieces, stories of distant plague and quotidian tragedy that are achingly constructed. These stories within the story also serve to show us the world beyond the confines of urban Fenest and bring a depth to the world that is greatly appreciated. The stories told from character to character are muddled in motivations personal and political and criminal, and the stories the characters tell themselves perhaps even more so.
The only disappointment with the book is the relatively abrupt ending- this book is the first in a trilogy following Cora, and the conclusion of this first story leaves open far more narratives than it closes. This is the way of stories, though, and D.K. Fields (the pseudonym for the writing partnership of novelists David Towsey and Katherine Stansfield) perhaps know that sometimes a satisfying conclusion is less enticing than an unanswered question. The second book of the Tales of Fenest trilogy, The Stitcher and The Mute, has immediately rocketed to the top of my reading list.