A Review of Four and Twenty Blackbirds

I was mentioning earlier that I had picked up Cherie Priest’s debut novel Four and Twenty Blackbirds and would be taking it with me to the trade show I went to last weekend; well, I did, and I read it while I was there, staying up until about 3am to finish it (fortunately, I didn’t have to sign any books until 1:40 pm the next day).

Briefly speaking, I was quite happy with it. It gave me a good spook and offered a lot of evocative writing without falling into the faux-Anne Rice verbiage many other Southern-based ghost stories I’ve read have done — Ms. Priest has her own voice, and that’s a good thing. She also has a good eye for imagery: The heroine Eden’s visit to a creepy old mental hospital and her arrival into the Florida city of St. Augustine are both very vivid.

My only complaint about the book is that it was too short, which is to say I would have like to have gone into deeper depth concerning Eden’s relationship with the ghosts that haunt her — not in explaining the relationships (which is handily done in the telling of the tale), but in the experience of interacting with those ghosts and an exploration of those abilities and how they were passed to her. I don’t think my desire to want to go deeper with that constitutes a failure of the book, however; it’s just a manifestation of where my own curiosities lie. 4&20 is plotted and executed well, and the author’s own plan for a tale doesn’t always coincide with that of the individual reader. I do know Ms. Priest has additional books in the series on the way, so maybe those things will get explored more there.

I’ll be passing along 4&20 to Krissy when she’s done with the book she’s currently reading; Krissy’s a big fan of southern gothics, so this is going to be right up her alley. I also think it would read very well for a teen audience; I could give this to my 16-year-old niece without a problem (perhaps as a double feature with Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps). And overall I’m happy to say I can recommend the book, and I’m looking forward to Wings to the Kingdom, the sequel, which as I understand will be available in late 2006.

Also, I think the 4&20’s cover art is absolutely fabulous.  

As an aside to the review the book, I’ve discovered with some interest that Ms. Priest and I have an unusual thing in common — both of us sold novels to Tor after serializing them online: Me with Old Man’s War, which I serialized here, and she with 4&20, which she serialized on a now defunct LiveJournal. 4&20, however, came to Tor by a rather more excruciating route (Ms. Priest originally sold the book to a small press, and it quickly became clear this might have not been a great idea; see this entry on Ms. Priest’s site for the whole sordid story). The novels appear to have been written more or less at the same time (2001), although her serialization predates mine (she did it in 2001, it seems, posting as she wrote, whereas I did it in 2002, after the book had been finished for more than a year).

I think it’s interesting and significant that two unknown writers who serialized their novels online eventually had those novels find their way to Tor. Among other things it shows both a proactiveness on the case of the Tor editors (Patrick Nielsen Hayden for me, Liz Gorinsky for Ms. Priest) to find work rather than just let work come to them; it also shows their facility in and comfort with the online world (both PNH and Liz have blogs of their own).

I don’t think this means that everyone should now start serializing their novels online, hoping for PNH or Liz or some other editor to wander by; you’ll note that Ms. Priest notes in the above-linked entry that she didn’t expect anything to come of her posting the work , and the reason I posted is because I was too damn lazy to shop the book around and had accepted the idea that posting it online would kill its sales value. Our experiences aside, it’s still vastly better to get your work in front of editors in their preferred manner than trying to get them to come to you (note here also that Ms. Priest did submit to Tor in the old-fashioned way; Liz found the partial manuscript on the slush pile before tracking down Ms. Priest online).

However, our experience does suggest that at least one publisher out there is looking to find good (and hopefully profitable) work from new writers by any means necessary. For first-time writers, this should be an encouraging thought.

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