Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.
“I—admire you, that’s all. Because some folks would have tried to ignore it and others would have gone crazy. And you walked right into the lion’s den.”
When Lauren Reardon’s father dies after a brief illness, a long-buried family secret is revealed. John Reardon once went by another name, and had a past his daughter knew nothing about. But more importantly, the protections Lauren never knew her father was keeping around her have fallen away, allowing an unwelcome visitor in. Fleeing this visitor and in search of answers, she is drawn across the country to Gideon, Illinois, where her family has a long and storied history waiting to be revealed. But not everyone in Gideon is happy to welcome her home, and Lauren is flying blind, unschooled in the powers that are her rightful inheritance.
Ostensibly a debut novel, Gideon is in fact a supernatural thriller from Alex Gordon, who also writes science fiction and fantasy under the name Kristine Smith (The Jani Kilian Chronicles). I received this book along with a letter from the publisher comparing Alex Gordon to no less than Neil Gaiman and Deborah Harkness. These types of comparisons often strike me as both inept and foolish, because how many writers are going to be able to live up to those expectations? Such flattery can actually be a disservice, since fans will almost inevitably be disappointed. But in the case of Alex Gordon and Gideon, some comparisons to Neil Gaiman, at least, are not unwarranted. Specifically, Gideon has a dark, moody atmosphere strongly reminiscent of American Gods, combining the rural flavour of Middle America with the supernatural. Although Gideon is home to witches and demons rather than Gaiman’s old and new gods, Gordon spends the first part of the book building Gideon’s history and the supernatural realm adjacent to it before introducing her protagonist and the present-day conflict. The story plays out on a scale of two-hundred years, opening on the people of Gideon burning the witch Nicholas Blaine at the stake in 1836.
The novel is divided into four parts of increasing length. The first two sections form a prologue of sorts, introducing us to Gideon, and its history. The third part brings in Lauren, the protagonist, somewhat late, but well worth waiting for, though she doesn’t really begin to shine until she gets to Illinois. In the final section, where the bulk of the story takes place, Lauren arrives in Gideon, where all of Gordon’s careful set up pays off big. Although we have only the vaguest idea who Lauren was and what her life was like before her father’s death, I quickly became strongly invested in her character. She is canny, with an almost political mind that allows her navigate the deep undercurrents and power dynamics that govern interpersonal relationships in Gideon. She makes a few missteps, but unlike some protagonists, I didn’t feel like I was on the outside looking in screaming, “Don’t do it!” all the way through the story.
Gideon is at once moody and atmospheric, rife with ambiguity and uncertainty. The people of Gideon are both secretive about their history, and tightly bound by it. Although Blaine is the villain who haunts Gideon, the rival camps he has created among the townspeople turn long memories into bitter feuds that give rise to terrible consequences. The Gideonites put a lot of faith (or distrust, take your pick) in bloodlines, and despite knowing nothing about her family’s past, Lauren is weighted down by it, judged before she ever has a chance to prove herself. The tension that drives the book is as much interpersonal as supernatural making Gideon is a stand-out novel, defined by well-crafted prose, a smart protagonist, and a flawlessly creepy mood.
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