Book Review: The Secrets of Life and Death, Rebecca Alexander (2014)

October 8th, 2014 11:49 am by Kelly Garbato

A Mostly Fun Mix of Urban Fantasy & Historical Fiction

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

It is said in Poland that nowhere is the line between alive and dead finer, than in Transylvania. Only when a corpse is bloated and festering, or entirely beheaded, is it believed dead.

Poland, 1585. The scientist-slash-sorcerer Dr. John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley are summoned to the castle of His Majesty King Istvan Báthory of Poland, King and Duke of Lithuania, King and Viovode of Transylvania, Prince of Hungary (say that five times fast!). His sister’s daughter, the Countess Elisabeth Báthory, is dying of a mysterious illness – one with symptoms eerily similar to the sickness that claimed her mother Anna and grandmother Katalin before her.

Caught between the warring forces of the Vatican and its brutal Inquisition; Elisabeth’s husband, the fierce Ferenc Nádasdy; and the angels (or are they demons?) who communicate with Dee through Kelley, the scientists risk death if they fail to cure the Countess – and possibly their mortal souls should they succeed.

England, 2013. A young girl goes missing, only to turn up dead months later, with strange occult symbols drawn all over her body. Anthropologist Felix Guichard, who specializes in esoteric religions, cults, and superstitions, is enlisted as a consultant on the case. His investigation leads him to the long-buried papers of John Dee and Edward Kelley – and the doorstep of Jackdaw Hammond, one of the earliest “victims” of the girls’ kidnappers.

Jackdaw is a “borrowed timer” – a walking corpse, tied to a dying body through dark magic. The Vatican considers them abominations – “souls held back from Heaven by sorcery” – and a special branch of the Inquisition has been hunting them down and “releasing” them for hundreds of years. Yet in their blood rests the power to heal others, even those with terminal illnesses. Jack has saved countless people, including other young girls whose deaths are destined – yet not immutable, as is usually the case. But now Jack and her newest rescue Sadie are being hunted – by both the Inquisition and the monster they hope to catch. With Felix’s help, Jack and Sadie must elude capture by the Church, destroy the evil pharma rep known as Bachmeier, and harness the black magic keeping them unnaturally alive for good.

By story’s end, the two time lines converge in deliciously fun take on the vampire tale. (Though if you’re familiar with the tale of Elizabeth Báthory, this won’t come as a complete surprise.) The result is an interesting blend of urban fantasy and historical fiction that nevertheless isn’t without its flaws.

While mostly enjoyable, The Secrets of Life and Death drags in some places; it could stand to be about 50 pages slimmer. Also, Alexander is a little too verbose at key moments, making the suspenseful bits slightly less so. And the romance between Felix and Jack feels forced and without any real sparks; it’s almost like Alexander threw it in just because (hey, let’s mix in another genre and some kissing too!).

On the positive side, I loved the historic elements (many of these characters are pulled from the pages of history); Jack’s rookery; Ches; and the interplay between Jack, Sadie, and Charley. Kelley is a bit of a sexist asshat, but in a way that made me love to hate him. In the witches, we also have an intriguing feminist element (e.g., “This is women’s work, the giving and […] the preserving of life.”) that isn’t explored as much as it could be. And I enjoyed the multiple time lines and perspectives, which complemented each other nicely and added to the feeling of intrigue and mystery.

A solid 3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 on Amazon and Goodreads. Not too shabby for a debut novel.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


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One Response to “Book Review: The Secrets of Life and Death, Rebecca Alexander (2014)”

  1. fuck yeah reading: 2014 books » vegan daemon Says:

    […] The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander (2014); reviewed here […]

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