Back in April, when I wrapped up my reviews of the InCryptid series, having already completed the Toby Daye books, I wondered where I'd go next. I've got into the habit of reading a Seanan McGuire novel each month, an oddly easy task given how insanely prolific she is, and I'd like to keep on going. There are other books with her name on them, even other books that aren't only available in that crazy too-tall premium paperback format, but the next logical choice was always 'Sparrow Hill Road', which turns out to be newly available in a fresh trade edition from DAW, so hey, here it is!
It's a book about Rose Marshall, the hitch-hiking ghost whom we've previously met as Aunt Rose (honorary, not by blood) to the Price family of the InCryptid series. It's also a fix-up novel, which means that it started out as a set of short stories, published monthly in 2010 in Jennifer Brozek's online zine, 'The Edge of Propinquity', then were reworked into a clean narrative for a novel, this one. DAW first published it in 2014 and have just reissued it with a startling new cover ahead of a brand new sequel with matching art.
It shouldn't be too surprising at this point to discover that it's a heck of a lot of fun, but it has a rather different tone to what we're used to. Both the Toby Daye and InCryptid series are snarky urban fantasy, but this is ghost story, contemporary but with a firm nod to tradition. It jumps around in time a great deal, from Rose's brief life and death as a sixteen-year-old Michigan girl in 1952 up to the mid-2010s, when she's still that sixteen-year-old but with a heck of a lot more experience, but that actually helps. If there's an underlying point being made here, it's that ghost stories are timeless and they change. McGuire does a fantastic job of recounting individual ghost stories that overlap and vary, but also combine to tell a bigger story.
That bigger story isn't resolved here and may or may not find a resolution in 'The Girl in the Green Silk Gown', this book's sequel which is due next month. However, it does progress, so much so that the two books may feel like opposites in at least one way, namely who's chasing whom.
Here, we learn about how Rose was killed by a man named Bobby Cross, who had already sold his soul for immortality when he ran her down in 1952 and, for all that she's done since, she's let that event define her, not just in the many ghost stories that grew up about her but in how she continued to exist (I'd say 'live her life', but that would be a weird way to talk about a ghost). As this book progresses, she begins to come to terms with that experience and starts to do something about it. I'm really looking forward to seeing how that plays out in the second book.
There's much to praise here, from the lyrical prose to the imaginative iconography (hello, Last Dance Diner, my new favourite place to stop for a malted), but my favourite aspect may be the worldbuilding. It's our world, of course, but there are layers below what we see. As a hitch-hiking ghost, Rose wanders the roads of the United States, but below those are the ghostroads, which parallel the real ones and also include roads that no longer exist at our level. We spend quite a bit of time on the ghostroads, but realise quickly that they're just the next level of many and they become darker and progressively more dangerous the further down you go.
If you've ever read anything by Seanan McGuire, you won't be surprised to find that the worldbuilding isn't tied only to the world but the many different creatures which inhabit it. Here, those aren't fae or cryptids but ghosts and those who interact with them. There are many kinds of each and they're introduced to us much more quickly than in the other two series, some per chapter (or original story) rather than per novel, but they're easily delineated and they each help to deepen the mythology into which we're being immersed.
Rose is a great example. She's a hitch-hiking ghost, which means that she's subject to a variety of rules, such as the ability to gain real corporeal form for 24 hours if a driver gives her a coat of any description. She's also a psychopomp, someone called by the scent of ashes and lilies to accident scenes, where she can help particular victims move on to whatever's next for them after death. However, she's a drop in the ocean and we meet old and new types of ghost in each story, as well as human characters who fit into this mythology like routewitches, whom we have met before in InCryptid stories.
I learned from 'Boneyard', McGuire's entry into the 'Deadlands' series, that she doesn't always write in the same snarky tone that her main series exhibit (not that Toby Daye is written in the same snarky tone as the InCryptid books, but they are both snarky). 'Boneyard' was all about tone, a resonant dark and shadowy one, and the story did feel like it played second fiddle to it. 'Sparrow Hill Road' feels like a cross between the deep mythology and story of the Toby Daye books with the more lyrical tone of 'Boneyard' and, frankly, that's a glorious mix. So far, I've reviewed nineteen of McGuire's novels and, as much as I like both her main series, I have a feeling that this may be my favourite book of hers thus far and I'm sure that it's the one to which I'll return to most.
Put simplest, there's so much here to enjoy and, while it all makes sense on a first time through, I'm pretty sure it's going to grow with revisits and that's not something I feel with her other work. Sure, I'll go back to the start of the Toby Daye books at some point and re-read, because McGuire knew what surprises she planned to spring on us later in the series and I want to see how they telegraphed because I didn't see most of them coming. This book, however, I want to re-read just for the pleasure of it. I mentioned in my review of 'Boneyard' that it felt a little like an attempt at a great American novel if such a creature could ever emerge from genre fiction. In many ways, 'Sparrow Hill Road' does a better job of that without ever seeming to try. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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