Title: The Secrets of Life and Death
Author: Rebecca Alexander
No. of Pages: 384
Genre: Science Fiction
Origins: Broadway Books
Release Date: 7 October 2014
Bottom Line: Eh. Just okay.
“In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret — She’s Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won’t rest until they’ve taken the magic that keeps her alive….
In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess’ malady, is the magic that might be able to save her…
As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee’s assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.”
Thoughts: On the surface, there should be much to enjoy about The Secrets of Life and Death. There is magic, witches, the occult, science, adventure, history, and mystery. However, that which should make it interesting instead makes it too overwhelming. There is simply too much occurring at any given point in time, and a reader does not have time to absorb one set of information before bouncing to the next scene.
To make things even more complicated, the characters are thin and ill-defined. There is no backstory for any of the characters. The sheer number of characters in the story makes the lack of details more egregious in that there is very little to distinguish between them or make them memorable in any fashion. The story moves so rapidly from the moment the story opens that the gaping holes left by the lack of definition or development are glaring in their obviousness. One will wish Ms. Alexander took the time to explain Felix’s background or Jack’s shady transactions to be better able to understand their motivations as the story progresses.
While the modern-day story lacks focus, jumping from introduction to love interest in a matter of pages without guiding a reader in that direction, the historical scenes told from Edward Kelley’s point of view are riveting, if a bit melodramatic. Here, readers have the benefit of historical context. Dee’s and Kelley’s exploits around Europe have numerous documents supporting them, including their own writings. Similarly, sharp readers who know their history and recognize the name Elisabeth Báthory will have an idea in which direction the story is moving – both past and present versions. For this reason, the historical scenes are more compelling because there is much greater background information on which to base them. While Ms. Alexander acknowledges that she twists history to create her own story, there is enough factual basis to provide a better foundation for this section of the novel.
The Secrets of Life and Death suffers mostly from ambition and clutter. The supernatural police crime melodrama character-driven historical fiction thriller love story elements which it contains do not blend well together. One cannot have a character-driven story without strong characters, and there are none in the novel. The rest creates a jumble of impressions that never settle into one cohesive story. It also suffers from a predictability that lessens the suspense and diminishes the impact of the big reveals. Throughout the novel, one glimpses potential. As previously stated, the sections with Kelley and Dee are very interesting for their historical details and more developed characters. However, these are only glimpses of potential unrealized. The rest is a disappointing tangle of story-telling that moves too quickly with too little explanation for readers to be able to follow with ease and excitement.