Reviews

REVIEW!! The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.

But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night. And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board…

Having read and ADORED Stuart Turton’s debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I added The Devil and the Dark Water to my Most Anticipated Reads list as soon as it was announced. Owing to the joys of Pandemic PhD life, it has taken me a few more months than I expected to set aside the time to really sink in and devour this one (Seven Deaths was definitely a book you just wanted to sit and gobble up over the course of a long weekend) but, thanks again to the lovely book club crew at The Write Reads, I was finally got chance to cosy with this 548 page chunkster and can confirm that it did not disappoint!

As with Seven Deaths, The Devil and the Dark Water is a novel that defies genre expectations. It’s set in 1634 so technically it’s a historical novel. As Stuart Turton points out in his afterward though, the history cedes to the story so those coming to the novel expecting a wholly accurate depiction of historical life a la Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brien will be disappointed.

There is more than one murder (plus at least one theft) and there’s a detective so is it a crime novel then?

Again…sort of? But the detective is locked up on charges unknown for most of the book, and the murders might be the work of a demonic supernatural entity.

So…horror novel?

Not quite. Whilst there are horrific acts a plenty, this isn’t simply a tale of things that go bump in the night . The devil might be on board the Saardam but it takes human agency to commit the acts of violence being inflicted upon the increasingly terrified passengers and crew.

The best I can come up with is that The Devil and the Dark Water is a cross between Assassins Creed: Black Flag (age of sail shipboard shenanigans), Murder on the Orient Express (enclosed murder mystery with limited suspects and a brilliant, eccentric detective) and Jaws (terrifying horror stalks everyone on board and you are DEFINITELY going to need a bigger boat). See what I mean about genre-defying?

The end result is, however, utterly brilliant. Turton once again weaves seemingly disparate plot strands and characters into an intricate and tightly bound web to create an elaborate and mind-bending puzzle that kept me guessing right up until the final pages.

In the characters of Arent Hayes and Sara Wessel, Turton has created two fantastic and likeable protagonists who, by the time the novel was over, felt like old friends and comrades. Sara is strong, compassionate, determined, inquisitive, and intelligent – everything a nobleman’s wife shouldn’t be. She quickly became one of my favourite characters – as did Arent, whose imposing frame and bloody history belies a fiercely loyal and gentle heart. The supporting cast are equally well-realised – from the cocksure genius Samuel Pipps to lively, flirtatious Creesjie Jens and silent, watchful Cornelius Vos, I could envisage them all in my head and frequently felt as if I had been picked up and placed next to them when reading.

The vivid characterisation really helps during the (infrequent) moments when the plot starts to lag a little, and also allowed me to forgive the (in my opinion) slightly rushed ending. Saying to much about either of those points would be to spoil the novel but, for me, the chapters following a major late-book dramatic incident aboard the Saardam felt didn’t have quite the same energy, and I felt as if some of the decisions taken at the end of the novel didn’t fit with the established morality of the characters involved. This certainly didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the book however and many other readers may feel very differently about the ending!

Although there were the occasional moments where the pace dropped, The Devil and the Dark Water was – for me at least – a page-turning read. There were definitely times when I had to use all my willpower to stay in-line with our Write Reads book club schedule – it was so tempting to read ahead! Because of the contained setting and the number of characters, this is a novel that you have to settle in to a bit – I’d definitely urge anyone struggling with the pace at the beginning to stick with the book for about 70-100 pages, when the action really begins to surge ahead at speed!

I also really loved the way that the supernatural was used in this novel. Again, I don’t want to say too much because of the risk of spoilers but the novel does a great job at examining the way in which fear and superstition can be utilised to justify prejudice, greed and other uniquely human follies. The Saardam is a ship full of sinners – everyone has a secret, everyone is out to get something, and nearly everyone will betray the man, woman, or child next to them to do it – and Turton has done a fabulous job of making this largely dishonest, cutthroat, and untrustworthy collection of characters both intriguing and, in many cases, relatable. As such, The Devil and the Dark Water works well as both a damning morality tale and an observant commentary on societal hierarchies – in addition to being a highly entertaining novel, of course!

Superbly written and with an intricate yet tightly controlled plot, The Devil and the Dark Water is a worthy successor to Seven Deaths and marks Stuart Turton out as a writer unafraid to blur the lines between genres and defy the expectations of what a particular type of novel should be. Packed full of relatable and vivid characters – in all their messy and selfish glory – and with a richly imagined setting, this is sure to delight fans of Turton’s previous novel – and will hopefully entice many new readers to discover his work.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury Raven and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Books of the Year 2020

Yes, it is that time of year again. As I prepare to kick 2020 firmly out of the door (and good riddance to it indeed), the time has come to look back on my reading year and think about the books that really stood out as highlights for me.

And, on the reading front at least, 2020 really has been an excellent year! Being stuck at home has at least given me more time to read. And, for me anyway, books have provided a solace and support in this otherwise trying and difficult year – you are, after all, never alone with a good book. In a year that has required staying local (and often staying indoors), books have also allowed me to travel vicariously through their pages.

As a result, I’ve had my best reading year for a while – a total of 104 books read! I’ve also found myself much less slumpy this year – possibly as a result of giving myself more freedom to read by whim and allowing more time to savour and enjoy my reading, and almost certainly because of all the lovely book chats that I’ve got involved with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook! Lockdown might be rubbish but it’s been so nice to be part of the book community during it and to get involved in online book clubs and reading challenges with fellow book lovers.

Continuing in this spirit of freedom – and in an effort to continue spreading the book love far and wide – I’ve therefore decided not to limit my Books of the Year to an arbitrary number. So instead of my usual ’round up’ post of my top 5/6 books, I wanted to share with you ALL of my favourite and recommended reads of 2020, along with a few words about why they’re brilliant and a link to my full review.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s go!!

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

A magical historical romp featuring a child returned from the dead, a photographer, a pub, and – of course – a river. With the story beginning at New Year, this was one of my first books of 2020 – and definitely one of the highlights of the year for me! Full review available here.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

A devastating novel of forbidden love and social hierarchy, the world of the eighteenth-century is bought vividly to life in this sexy, dangerous romp of a novel. With one of the most memorable ending paragraphs I think I’ve ever read, there was no way that Mr Lavelle wasn’t making it onto this list! Full review available here.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

A book that combines fascinating figures and scholarly rigour with Greg Jenner’s trademark humour, this is the perfect read for anyone interested in celebrity, fandom, and the eighteenth-century. Shelf of Unread catnip essentially! Full review available here.

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

Another fascinating non-fiction read, this time looking at the history of sex and sexuality. Kate Lister brings scholarly rigour and deft social commentary to bear on her topic, whilst retaining the wry humour that has made her @WhoresOfYore Twitter account such a joy.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

Crime writer Sarah Ward’s first foray into historical fiction provided a page-tuning country house mystery with a pinch of the gothic and supernatural. More Shelf of Unread catnip and a joy to read from first page to last. Full review available here.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

A historical detective novel with a difference, Things in Jars features a mysterious – and possibly magical – child, a pipe-smoking female detective, and the ghost of a dead boxer. Defying genre expectations and revelling in the playfulness of its prose, this was an absolute treat of a novel and perfect for devouring over a long weekend. Full review available here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A powerfully imagined exploration of family, love, motherhood and grief, Hamnet is one of the few novels to have made me both laugh and cry in 2020. Just as magnificent as everyone says it is. Full review available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Honestly the only reason I haven’t reviewed this yet is because I am still trying to find the words for it. A magnificent intergenerational story told from twelve perspectives. Fully deserving of every one of the accolades given to it.

A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross

A surprise hit on audio, this book about graves and graveyards manages to talk about very sad things without ever feeling sad. Instead the book is poignant, touching, and deeply hopeful. Perfect 2020 reading.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

A slice of everyday life encapsulated within pitch-perfect and elegant prose, Sarah Moss’s masterful novella – set in a series of isolated cabins on the edge of a Scottish loch – provided the perfect allegory for lockdown life whilst exploring the tensions and fractures that lie underneath society’s surface. Full review available here.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Smart, witty, and immensely pleasurable, Richard Osman’s first foray into fiction provided the perfect mix of mystery, comedy, poignancy, and compassion. Full review available here.

The Booksellers Tale by Martin Latham

Written by a bookseller, Martin Latham’s exploration of our love affair with books covers an eclectic list of topics. From marginalia to comfort reading, street bookstalls to fantastical collectors, if you love books and bookshops then you’re sure to find this a fascinating and comforting read.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Another genre-bending romp from the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Mixing history, mystery, supernatural horror, and suspense, Stuart Turton once again keeps the pages turning as a mysterious voyage goes badly wrong. Full review appearing on The Shelf shortly!

Deity by Matt Wesolowski

The latest in Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series isn’t out in paperback until 2021 (although it’s out now as an ebook) but I managed to get hold of a copy in preparation for the blog tour and let me tell you that it does not disappoint! I devoured this one in about 24 hours – a page-turning mixture of top-notch plotting, compelling mystery, and chilling events. Full review appearing on The Shelf soon!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

By turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting, Dear Reader is an ode to books and book lovers. Combining memoir with reading recommendations, this was the perfect book about books for 2020. Full review available here.

Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A pair of riveting mysteries with twists to rival Agatha Christie and a unique ‘novel in a novel’ structure, both of these were diverting and engaging reads. Full reviews available here and here.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The book that got me back into YA! With a gripping plot, a clever mystery, a little light romance, and some fabulous characters, this was a page-turning and entertaining read. I can’t wait for the sequel in 2021! Full review available here.

The Cousins by Karen M McManus

More YA, this time involving a hideously wealthy family, a small airport’s worth of emotional baggage, and an exclusive island home hiding a multitude of dark secrets. Fun, entertaining, and suspenseful, this has made me want to read more of McManus’ work. Full review available here.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There’s nothing like a good sensation novel to curl up with as the nights draw in and Lady Audley’s Secret has it all – secrets, danger, illicit romance, possible murder, madness, arson! An absolute romp of a book, this classic is perfect for fans of Wilkie Collins.

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker

A beautiful combination of social history and personal memoir, Mike Parker’s On The Red Hill tells the tale of Rhiw Goch (‘the Red Hill’) and its inhabitants: Mike and his partner Preds and, before them, George and Reg. It’s also the tale of a remarkable rural community, and the lush prose and vivid descriptions took me straight back to the Welsh mountains and reminded me of the importance of home.

And we’re done!! Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or if you have them on your TBR! Here’s to having another excellent reading year in 2021 – and to leaving some of the less pleasant aspects of 2020 far behind us. Thank you for sticking with me and with The Shelf through 2020. Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful and happy new year – see you on the other side!

If you’re tempted to treat yourself after reading this post, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!