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Magic, Murder & Mayhem – a Review of The Briar Book of the Dead

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

The Briar Book of the Dead by A.G. Slatter (AKA Angela Slatter) is a darkly gleaming Gothic fairytale/murder mystery full of witches and ghosts, evil schemes, and deeply buried family secrets. It’s also a book about how the past—in the form of the stories we choose to tell about it—can reverberate through time and shape the future in unexpected ways.

Like her two most recent novels, All the Murmuring Bones and The Path of Thorns, The Briar Book of the Dead is set in Slatter’s Sourdough universe, familiar territory for readers of her fiction. If you’re not already acquainted with this dark fantasy realm of witches and shapeshifters, magic and wicked deeds, you can sample it in many of Slatter’s short stories, for example “Bearskin” and “St. Dymphna’s School For Poison Girls,” as well as in short story collections like Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible.

In The Briar Book of the Dead, we find ourselves in the small, rather isolated town of Silverton, perched on the border of the menacing Darklands. For generations, Silverton has been ruled by the women of the Briar family, headed by whomever among them is chosen to be the Briar Witch. The Briar family’s power in Silverton is built on magic and competence: they take care of the villagers and protect them from dangers both magical and otherwise, and in turn they receive the loyalty and service of the citizens. There is an interesting balance here that Slatter alludes to early on and which plays an ever more important role as we get deeper into the story, concerning the relationship between the witches and the citizens of Silverton. It’s about a bargain struck for mutual benefit, and about the price that must be paid, in the present as it was in the past, in order to seal that bond.

The narrator of the story is Ellie Briar, a young woman who, much to her own and her family’s chagrin, is the first non-witch born into the Briar family for generations. Ellie, a most competent and self-possessed young woman, has seemingly learned to accept her non-magical fate, and is being trained to take on the role of steward (basically the town administrator) while more important town business goes to the magically gifted members of the family. Slatter—always a master at writing flawed and complex women—captures Ellie with great care and skill right from the opening scene when she fails yet another ritual meant to awaken her magic. While Ellie isn’t exactly an outcast in her witchy family, she does feel like the odd one out, and there is a lingering sense of sadness and failure, a sense of ability and purpose thwarted, that bleeds through in her interactions with the other Briar women.

Then, Ellie’s grandmother, the Briar Witch and family matriarch, dies suddenly. In the aftermath of that loss, Ellie gains a completely unexpected new ability: she can see and speak to the dead. And, as it turns out, there are ghosts aplenty in Silverton, each one with a story, each one with a reason to cling to the world of the living. Listening to the tales of the ghosts, Ellie begins to unravel some of the deep, dark secrets buried in the Briar family’s past, while she also realizes that there is a knotty tangle of terrible secrets and schemes at play in the present. From here, the novel reads like a thrilling and thoroughly compelling mix of murder mystery, dark fantasy, and haunted family chronicle rife with mysterious deaths, ominous disappearances, and rumors of a powerful grimoire that may or may not be lost.

Many writers of fantasy and science fiction construct vast fictional realms which they return to again and again, adding characters, backstories, and new plotlines over time. Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Le Guin’s Earthsea are two well-known examples. In contemporary speculative fiction, I’ve been drawn into the sprawling fantastical worlds of P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn universe, E. Catherine Tobler’s Traveling Circus universe, Yoon Ha Lee’s Hexarchate stories, and Aliette de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya, among others.

I would put Slatter’s Sourdough universe right up there with the best of these fictional realms. In her short fiction, novellas, and novels, Slatter has created, and keeps creating, a vividly drawn, intricately detailed world. It’s a world run through with magic and stories, spells and tales, misdeeds and glory, and Slatter moves through it all with peerless imaginative purpose, weaving together the smallest yarns and anecdotes with the grandest tales. Characters and storylines echo through the work: old stories return as myths or half-forgotten rumor, children who grew up in the shadow of one tale return to wreak havoc in another, and sins that went unpunished in one lifetime, seep into the fabric of other lives.

For example, some of the story threads in The Briar Book of the Dead run back to Slatter’s 2015 novella, Of Sorrow and Such. You certainly don’t need to read that novella before you read The Briar Book of the Dead, but it is fascinating to see the way those threads run through the weft and warp of this book, tugging at the lives of Ellie Briar and the people of Silverton.

I’ve often said that no one writes witches like A.G. Slatter, but more than that, few writers write women like Slatter does and, as in all her work, The Briar Book of the Dead is full of flawed and fascinating women, women who are never reduced to just being innocents victims or vicious perpetrators, and who go about wielding whatever power they can grab in order to gain something for themselves in a world that is rarely made for their benefit. Ellie Briar is one of these women, and certainly one of the most captivating of Slatter’s heroines to date. Keen of eye and mind, Ellie is often underestimated by the people around her, and she is driven, not so much by goodness or heroism, perhaps, as by a sense of loyalty: to her family, certainly, but maybe even more to her community and the inhabitants of Silverton, both the living and the dead.

As the book’s title suggests, the dead, and, by extension, the past, haunt every step of this tale, as choices made long ago—lies, deceptions, love—are disinterred and brought to light. The more Ellie learns, the more she realizes that all of Silverton might be in danger, because magic, like all Briar women well know, comes at a price. The question is who will be made to pay.

Slatter is at the top of her game in The Briar Book of the Dead, weaving her magic into every page, luring you in with her exquisite prose and finely crafted characters and then pulling you in ever further as the plot thickens, the dead bodies pile up, and the ghosts gather in Silverton.

The Briar Book of the Dead is available now from Titan Books.