Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A man with a shadow for a heart discovers monsters on the streets of his Yorkshire town. Intriguing, tell me more. Eric is going to die; all the doctors say so. Until he doesn’t, instead making a miraculous recovery to full health that leaving him with shadowy heart beating on his chest that nobody else can see. With that heart comes the Umbras, vicious monsters leaving people dead all around town, and their presence will bring consequences for him, for his mother, and for the man he loves, and everyone else in the town. Why this, why now? I was sent the ARC of this so long ago that the book has been out for months. Why this now? I’m not so sure; the happenstance of just feeling like this was the next book, perhaps. What genre would you say it is? Heartsnare is a wonderful collision of genre. For me this is precisely it’s joy, though for some readers it may be the book’s undoing. On the surface this is urban fantasy, unhooked from its usual moorings and let loose on the streets of a Yorkshire town of job centres and council estates, parish churches and cheap-and-cheerful cafes. This switch in setting brings with it its own genre, a kind of kitchen-sink character drama that is given at least as much, if not more, care and attention as the supernatural elements. In fact, the external threat and the mythology it brings with it is introduced so slowly enough that for a fair chunk of the novel there is more of a feel of a bleak crime drama than urban fantasy, before finally the fantasy plot underlying the whole affair begins to take over.
For me, this is wonderful: the characters are fully fleshed, living-breathing creations, flawed in that way that makes them real and not in the tickbox way that writers often use that word. Williams cares as much for the personal dramas as the horrors of the Umbraverse (though is not to suggest that they aren’t present and vital to the narrative), and it is for precisely this reason that Heartsnare takes off, though I can understand why readers coming at this from either end of the genres might find it an uneasy mixture (though frankly this would have more to do with the readers’ expectations than it does the book itself). Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Yes and yes. Heartsnare is a breath of fresh air in so many ways: blackly funny in ways that both bolster and undercut the melodrama, stuffed full of sharply observed characters and interactions, and above all: British as fuck. This is neither stiff-upper-lip picturesque country gothic nor fetishised poverty porn; instead it navigates the middle ground of provincial ordinariness. It’s characters feel the pinch of money but they get by; they work crap jobs but they’re not saintly martyrs; some of them attend church but also make crude jokes about bonking the vicar. They’re rude and subversive and funny and sweet and arseholes when they want to be. It’s only when you read this that you realise how rarely these kinds of characters make it to the page, let alone as the heroes of fantasy or horror, and it’s a bloody gift.
Williams has a gift for prose, sharp and elegant, able to turn on a word from sinister and vivid to wry an humorous. There are some shivery moments of horror in Heartsnare (Marishka especially is a beautiful, horrifying creation of expertly-handled ambiguity) that linger longer after the book closed. Equally, (the bastard), Williams also has the knack for sharply observed dialogue, and there are more than a fair handful of blackly-funny laugh-out-loud moments amongst the darkness. Finishing Heartsnare I was put to mind of Stephen King’s earlier novels, with its small-town characters swept up in bigger things but always more than just a puppet on strings at the mercy of plot mechanics; if Heartsnare is anything it feels a little like the first third of one of King’s so-thick-you-could-mug-someone-with-them novels, with more to come as Eric gets drawn into the multitudinous possibilities of the Umbraverse. The book leaves us poised for a sequel, and no doubt this will be as fine as Heartsnare, though for all the imaginative places Williams could take us in the Umbraverse, I hope it also retains its hometown spirit. Give me a good quote: The cloud of flies disgorged her onto the warehouse floor. Marishka reached out her gloved hand, took hold of the nearest clump of grass surrounding the fat foxgloves, and with weak hands she pulled. Inch by inch, foot by foot, she clawed her way through the warehouse to the raised throne. The foxes of the grove, most silhouettes, stood to attention. Their eyes shone, almost accusing, and by the throne sat two foxes larger than the rest. These foxes, resplendent with their black and jade eyes, bowed to her as she approached but, given that she was actually crawling on the floor, this felt like an exercise in sarcasm more than reverence. Bad reviews? What bad reviews?! (Because, hey, writers don’t get to reply to reviewers, but reviewers can.)
“Did a toddler write this book?” Possibly; if so, this toddler has remarkably good grammar.
“A lot of nonsense and sarcasm used to pad it.” You’ve clearly never met a British person.
“Every odd statement end[ed] with ‘mate’ or ‘cheers'” Hello, have you met people?
“Like the needle in a haystack, you have to dig deep to find the essential story hidden beneath a huge pile of fillers.” I will actually treat this criticism seriously. As I said upthread, there will be a section of readers accustomed to fast-paced urban fantasy dominated by plot and mythology that find Heartsnare‘s preoccupation with the minutiae of its characters uncomfortable and offputting; that’s their prerogative, and I can see why this would be an unfamiliar reading experience for them. And really, that sentence betrays itself with the word ‘essentially’ for in that it clearly suggests that only plot mechanics are essential. Personally, as a writer and a reader, I think they’re dead wrong, and it was precisely the ‘fillers’ that gave Heartsnare is (pun unintended) heart.
Is it available today? Out now from Lethe Press. Soundtrack of choice: This isn’t all that representative, but I did listen to it while I was reading, and if you imagine it with that counter-programming effect that’s so popular with horror trailers these days it kinda works, so take this cover of The Automatic’s Monster.