Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

First, a disclaimer: Not being a book blogger, I decided to confine my book “reviews,” such as they are, to Goodreads, and to focus on books by indie authors. Maplecroft is published by one of the Big 5 and is by a well-known author. But it does fall into the category of science fiction called “Lovecraftian.” Miskatonic University (a venue frequented by one Herbert West, who is near and dear to me) is mentioned. Lizzie Borden meets the Deep Ones! I couldn’t resist.

The plot in brief: after being acquitted of the charge of murdering her father and stepmother, Lizzie Borden is living in seclusion with her sister Emma in a mansion known as Maplecroft near the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Emma is a learned marine biologist dying of consumption (tuberculosis) and Lizzie has a laboratory in the cellar. The house is occasionally visited by creatures reminiscent of Lovecraft’s “Deep Ones” (from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) that Lizzie valiantly dispatches with her axe. This already sinister situation becomes potentially catastrophic when Emma sends a sample of a marine creature found on the seashore near Maplecroft to Professor Phillip Zollicoffer at Miskatonic University. The sample has unique qualities which transform the professor into something weird and dangerous. Meanwhile, residents of Fall River begin to show symptoms of a strange affliction which flummoxes the local doctor, Owen Seabury. The doctor and the Borden sisters end up joining forces (sort of) to figure out the nature of what they call the Problem — the mysterious disease and the threat posed by Zollicoffer. Much mayhem ensues.

My review: Priest’s vigorous prose carries the plot along, despite bogging down at intervals in patches of intense description of actions, emotions and thoughts. Dr. Owen Seabury and Emma Borden are the only well-rounded characters with any hope of being sympathetic. Lizzie (sometimes called Lizbeth) is curiously limited. I did not find myself caring much about her, possibly because when presented with any challenge at all, her first choice is to grab her axe and go after it at a full run. After two or three of these episodes, I got bored. Lengthy and detailed descriptions of physical actions, even those resulting in splattery destruction of eldritch entities, rapidly become a chore to read. But Lizzie is certainly different from the usual Lovecraft protagonist, who at the climactic scene tends to lose consciousness or flee.

The various theories to explain the weird phenomena, however — those are quite interesting, and I wish the author had spent more effort developing them. As does yet another character who appears at intervals — one Inspector Simon Wolf from Boston. The agency he represents is quite mysterious, and I suspect readers will see more of him as the series continues. The Lovecraftian elements, namely the bizarre creatures of marine origin and the professor from Miskatonic, are handled well by Priest. The unfortunate Doctor Phillip Zollicoffer (love that name!) has a deadly charm quite in keeping with his origins. The ultimate threat, apparently resident in the deep ocean, is appropriately huge, formless and terrifying (and probably acquainted with Cthulhu).

The narration is uniformly in the first person, but the characters take turns doing the narrating. The Borden sisters and Dr. Seabury are the primary voices, with telling contributions by Prof. Zollicoffer and cameo appearances several others. I have no trouble with this kind of thing and followed the storyline throughout, but some readers may find it annoying or confusing.

I have to mention a few things I found annoying or that simply didn’t work for me: first, the character Nance O’Neil (an actress who is based, like the Borden sisters, on an actual person). She is Lizzie’s lover, for whose sake Lizzie is prepared to do almost anything. The trouble is, the degree of that devotion comes as a surprise about halfway through the book; at the beginning there is no sense that Lizzie is pining for her company, and when Nance arrives uninvited for an extended visit, Lizzie’s main concern is to keep her out of the cellar which houses the laboratory and some other interesting things. Their relationship never feels real. Second — the laboratory. Emma is the scientist, but has never set foot in the place. Lizzie’s focus of interest is folklore and spells found in old books, so why does she need a laboratory? Third: lye plays an important role in a crucial scene near the end. Despite the lip-service paid to science throughout the book, the lye solution is at one point said to produce a “deadly acid spray.” Huh? Lye is a strong base, quite the opposite of acid. An important detail that should have been caught.

Altogether, this was a compelling read. It’s quite clear there will be more books in a series called the Borden dispatches, which may account for the absence of a real solution to the Problem in this one. I can definitely recommend it to readers with a taste for the weird and violent.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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