Book review: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon


Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

AUTHOR INFO: Robert Rick McCammon was a full-time horror writer for many years. Among his many popular novels were the classics Boy's Life and Swan Song. After taking a hiatus for his family, he returned to writing with an interest in historical fiction.

McCammon resides in Birmingham, Alabama. He is currently working on the eighth Matthew Corbett novel, The King of Shadows.

Publisher: Gallery Books (July 17, 2007) Length: 816 pages

OVERVIEW: Speaks the Nightbird is a masterpiece. It's been on my Kindle for a while, but the daunting page count terrified me. Silly (or lazy?) me. It's magnificent.

Set in Colonial America in 1699, the story follows Matthew Corbett - an apprentice of magistrate Isaac Woodward. The pair travels to Fount Royal to investigate the case of a young woman accused of two murders and witchcraft (plus terrible weather and everything that drives settlers away.) Town leaders press for quick execution - there's nothing like burning of the witch to calm the masses.

Evidence and testimonies speak against Rachel, but Matthew, impressed by her beauty, has doubts. Small inconsistencies in testimonies, minor clues, and observation of people lead him to challenge his Master and everyone around. It also appears many of Rachel's accusers have a lot to gain by her execution. 

McCammon presents the era with all the filthy details. It's clear he's done a lot of research. The use of anachronisms respects the period's tone and linguistic conventions. The level of care put to present shocking customs and beliefs of the era (like treating bloodletting as a panacea) impressed me. 

A note about McCammon's writing - he paints an amazingly detailed picture of pretty much any scene. I found myself totally immersed in his writing but it won't appeal to everyone. Be warned; it is not a quick read, but rather an immersive and detailed study of the era and human soul. Yes, yes, I know, it sounds dramatic but it's also true.  The narrative presents the hardships of day-to-day living during Colonial times and superstitions that made people behave in the most hideous ways toward others. McCammon doesn't shy away from portraying grittier aspects of human nature. Have that in mind.

I immediately liked Matthew. I admired his single-minded desire to know the answers, all of them; to learn new things and unravel mysteries.  Matthew is a peculiar man. The type who relaxes by solving mathematical problems. In Latin, of course. The sort of man ready to stand against the beliefs of his era to learn the truth. In Speaks the Nightbird, he gains a new level of understanding of himself and the world. But to get there, he needs to challenge hundreds of years of medieval knowledge built into the legal system at the time.  

He's also a twenty-year-old virgin and an orphan; his relationships with both his master and Rachel (accused of witchery) are nuanced and fully believable. His dynamics with Woodward is amazing and gut-wrenching. Perfectly portrayed. Matthew's journey into manhood is difficult but he gets there by trusting his instincts and refusing to give up when faced with the impossible. 

As mentioned, McCammon loves details. Such focus forces readers to be with characters every step of their way, to live through each choice and action they make. And in my opinion, McCammon managed to flesh out every single character in his novel. I can't name any flat character in here. Sure, some are grotesque (a blacksmith who loves his horses, perhaps too much, or the lecherous priest known as Exodus Jerusalem)  but not forgettable. 

CONCLUSION: Speaks the Nightbird is one of the best books I've ever read. A slow burn, sure, but with depth, intelligence, and a fascinating story to tell. Despite tackling dark themes and showing both violence and disturbing deviations, it doesn't lack subtle humor and hope. And did I mention it contains mysteries within mysteries and visceral action scenes? 

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