Monday, 5 July 2010
Review: Witch Breed (Hell's Underground 4) by Alan Gibbons
When Paul arrives in 17th century London, he expects to be thrown into a life or death struggle for the three gates that imprison the ancient King Lud. But the battle doesn't come. Instead, Paul roams alone, learning how to survive in a city where all the talk is of the savage civil war that rages beyond its ramparts. Somewhere underground, Lud is waiting in his crypt, preparing to rise again. War, fear and want are his tools. But Paul too has his own weapons and is gaining strength and losing inhibitions about using it. Meanwhile, beyond the city, innocent women are being killed for it is so easy to claim that they are witches. One woman - whether innocent or guilty - possesses the only power available that can help Paul in his quest.
Back in April, as part of my horror themed month, I reviewed the whole series (so far) of Alan Gibbons' Hell's Underground books. At the time I was somewhat effusive with my praise for the series. Now Witch Breed, the fourth book in the series, has been published and I feel very confident in proclaiming that in my opinion this is the best YA horror series around today. Yes, Darren Shan is the name that will spring to the minds of most young people when asked to name a writer of YA horror, but his Demonata stories can appear amateurish in comparison with the output of Alan Gibbons. And I am not the only person who feels this way about these books - there are two wonderful comments attached to the review that I wrote in April, one from an adult horror fiction fan and another from a 15 year old girl, and both of them are as enthusiastic about these books as I am (and rather more eloquent in their enthusiasm too).
Witch Breed is different from the previous three books. In these we saw Paul Rector very much in the middle of things from the moment he arrives in each new time period, and following the dramatic climax of Renegade you would be forgiven for expecting something pretty much the same from this book. However, there are moments throughout Witch Breed where you may find yourself wondering exactly who the main character is. Is it Paul? Or is it Grace Fletcher, soon to be trialled for witchcraft? Or perhaps it is Netty, Paul's 21st Century girlfriend who has been brought back in time by the evil Nathanael Rector as bait to lure and destroy Paul? The reason for this doubt is that for a large part of the book the story's viewpoint jumps around between characters, each having an important story requiring our attentio, and yet at no point does this become confusing - Mr Gibbons accomplishes it with seemingly effortless ease, and in doing so ratchets up the tension to even greater highs.
For a horror writer this is such a great period in British history to focus on. It is 1645, slap bang in the middle of the English Civil War, but more importantly it is the time when Matthew Hopkins, the so-called Witchfinder General, was travelling around Eastern England with his assistant John Stearne persecuting scores of innocent women and having them executed as witches. Sometimes when requiring a diabolically evil villain an author need look no further than the history books and Mr Gibbons' use of Hopkins and Stearne in the plot of Witch Breed is perfect.
Coming off the back of the failure he experienced in Renegade, we begin to see another side of Paul's character in Witch Breed. Whereas in previous books we saw him slowly gain in confidence, especially as he realised that he could acquire the powers of the demons he killed, we now see him have many moments of self-doubt and confusion. Can a boy really defeat the ancient evil of King Lud, given the demonic resources this creature has under his control? Is he just a pawn of Cormac and the Priests of Beltane? And then when Netty suddenly appears in the 17th Century all previous plans are out of the window as Paul's priorites shift, with potentially disastrous consequences. In the other books Paul has often had to rely on the assistance of others in order to reach his goals, but this help becomes even more essential in Witch Breed as we discover that despite everything he has been through, and the powers he has developed, Paul is still at heart a normal teenager, and still has many of the flaws, worries and doubts that any young person would have.
Of course, despite the nastiness of Hopkins and Stearne, there is still a Rector ancestor for Paul to contend with, and this time it is Nathanael. This Rector, though, is not given quite the page count that family members in the previous books have enjoyed, but we are still left in no doubt as to the shear evil and ruthlessness of this man. After the entourage of evil that surrounded Samuel Rector in the previous books I didn't think Alan Gibbons would be able to follow it up with a similarly memorable band of demonic followers for Nathanael. Oh me of little faith! Yet again, the author has created a terrifying bunch of monsters for Paul to pit his wits against, and these demon riders come with names such as Lamedog, Ratshade, Claypin, and my absolute favourite, Suckvenom.
If you love horror and haven't yet discovered this series then you must make it a priority - you will not be disappointed. If the trials of Paul Rector are already known to you then this fourth book in the series was published by Orion on 1st July so what are you waiting for? I am very thankful to the ever-generous Nina Douglas at Orion for sending me a copy, but as ever with this series I am left waiting greedily for the next in the series, whenever that may be.