Brimstone is a new standalone novel from Cherie Priest. Priest is commonly known for the steampunk alternate history that she kicked off with “Boneshaker”, but she’s also done a paranormal duology centred on Elizabeth Borden. Brimstone, though, is something else again – a historical novel with paranormal elements as well as a strong character piece.
Brimstone is set in Florida, after the close of the First World War. Much of the action is centred on Cassadaga, a small town made famous by its extensive spiritualist community. It has the feeling of a cheerful place, part small-town, part mystic camp. There’s a feeling of sunshine, and of community. Whilst there are always visitors coming and going, drawn by the reputation of the place, the central core of the town remains the same. There’s a sense behind it though – as deeper mysteries are alluded to, and dismissed in the same breath. This is a community of scholars, perhaps, of friendly mediums, of experimental séances – but it’s a laissez-faire one, where rigour and enthusiasm are in competition.
That said, the small town atmosphere and overall sunny disposition make Cassadega a haven for the dispossessed and the desperate. It’s that dichotomy which comes alive over the pages, as we’re drawn into the town – whitewashed walls and friendly neighbours are juxtaposed with mystical understanding, and again with the fraught responses of those coming into the town looking for Truth with a capital ‘t’. There’s enough of the world here to make it convincing, broad strokes laid down, with Prohibition bars and art-deco décor playing alongside camps by the railroad and cunning architecture -and the reader can fill in the blanks where required.
There’s some more context provided in flashbacks, particularly focused on the war. Here the mood is entirely different, somewhere between sombre and monstrous. Flashes of flame and mud compete with blood and injury, a vision of hell and fire. Priest does well at getting both of these spaces – the trenches and the commune – to feel alive, in very distinct ways. The lick of flame and screaming is drawn in almost dreamlike fashion, but still feels real on the page; the small town, whose secrets are if not dark, at least grey, seems a bustling, cheerful place, familiar, and enjoyable to rediscover for the first time.
The two central characters have different viewpoints, largely alternated throughout the text. One is a tailor, a survivor of the war, not entirely unharmed by it. The other wants to be integrated into the Cassadega community, leaving a defined life in order to make something of herself, with a talent she’s not entirely sure of. I enjoyed the latter, a woman not afraid to give her opinion, but also given to throes of doubt, alongside a defining compassion. Her struggles to understand her talent, conveyed through a seemingly literary account, are appropriately painful, her investigations revelatory for both herself and the reader. The other though, the tailor – is something else. There’s a raw pain at work here. A tragedy, a need for love and forgiveness in equal measure. Here is a tortured soul, struggling to renew themselves. Each drop of sweat, of fear, of need, and indeed of love drips off the page, the desperation, the need and its raw humanity making the character into a person.
The plot – as ever, I shall try and avoid spoilers. It’s a slow burner of sorts, as one of our characters begins to learn about herself and her abilities, and the other tries to discover whether escalating unusual occurrences are simply accidents, or in some way related to him, or to the world of the dead. The start is quiet, drawing you into the setting, but the tension slowly ratchets over the course of the narrative. By the midpoint, there’s a sense of incipient danger, and of the familiar, friendly places, of the warmth of the sunshine, becoming something darker and more dangerous – a place of fuel and fire. Most of the text is about the protagonists, about their hopes and their fears, and the way they interact with each other as they investigate the troubling occurrences around them. There’s honest misfortune here, and love, calamity and laughter, and even a little Truth. It’s an interesting work of eerie fantasy running side by side with historical reality – and the shape of the protagonists makes the narrative compelling, the investment making the tension, the fear of consequences, real. In short, it’s a story with a slow and steady burn, but one which is worth seeing through.