Title: The Heralding
Author: Ashley McCarthy
Genre: Historical Fiction / Horror
A small town in rural England is rocked to its very foundation by the greed, malevolence, and evil brought about by the Great Famine of the 14th century. Having just faced a personal tragedy, Matilda struggles to survive in a world that no longer makes sense, even as supernatural elements in the woods awaken, causing ripples and repercussions that will change the course of her destiny in ways she never could have foreseen.
Story-wise, The Heralding is supernatural/horror fiction at its most basic. Some of the plot elements, like the developing romance between the male and female leads, would be nothing new to fans of the genre. However, Ashley McCarthy structured and organized these elements in a way that brought a different and almost fresh perspective to a familiar story. The timeline was broken down into pieces and layered in such a way that amplified tension and suspense. It was almost like the past was in a race to catch up with the present, and readers could do nothing but be taken along for the ride.
The setting was almost claustrophobic in its containment to the small town where Matilda lived. However, this added to the atmosphere of the book. There was a sense of hopelessness in how the villagers had no idea what was going on with the rest of the country, how they could only hear bits and pieces of news from strangers travelling through. Keeping the scale small also allowed readers to focus on Matilda and the small group of people within her immediate environment. By the time the book nears its conclusion, readers are invested enough to care about what happens to them.
Character development could have been more consistent. There were moments where some of the characters felt like caricatures of the poor villager or the town gossip, even the wealthy overlord and his corrupt right-hand man. Finn, the male lead, fell just a bit short of being the three-dimensional character that we need him to be. What McCarthy did very well, however, was to show that good, bad, and evil were not distinct boxes that you can fit people into, but could more accurately be likened to sets in a Venn diagram that overlap and intersect depending on one’s environment and personal circumstances.
It is interesting to note the feminist subtext subtly woven through the threads of this story. In the characters of Matilda and Lady Adelaide, we see the struggle to be in control of their own destiny. Separated by wealth and class, both nevertheless recognized a kindred spirit in the other. Both were forced into marriage, one through lack of other options, the other because her options were taken away from her. These struggles are sure to resonate with certain female readers.
The Heralding is a clear-eyed view of humanity at its best and at its very worst, a commentary on how greed and corruption, and the many ways that those who have continued to prey on those who have not, are tales as old as time. The message is clear: a lot has changed, but there is still so much more that can be done. Ultimately, however, The Heralding is a triumphant story of courage and survival, particularly female survival, against overwhelming odds. A masterclass in storytelling, this is a book that will stay with readers long after the last page has been turned.
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