I have to declare an interest before I tell you any more about this book. Richard Estep, the author, is a friend of mine. He offered some of his friends a chance to read a proof of his latest book, the teen/YA novel Agonal Breath (The Deadseer Chronicles Book 1), which is released today, and I was one of the lucky ones who barged in early enough to get picked.
So, now you know. Hopefully you also know me well enough to know that I would never skew a review in favour of a friend. If a book is good, it gets a good review from me. If not, it doesn’t. End of.
Having said that, I am lucky enough to be able to tell you that Agonal Breath is a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and apart from a brief spell of reading horror/ghost stories in my teens, I have never been a particularly huge fan of the genre, so it had a lot of work to do as far as I was concerned. If I have to read from the genre I prefer books that are thoughtful explorations of the topic as well as keeping you on the edge of your seat. I like to be scared in a believable way, and this book delivers that in spades.
It is written from the point of fourteen year old Danny Chill. Danny is a geek. He loves all things sci-fi and fantasy, and his bedroom is a testament to his passions, being more a den of geek than anything else. His passions don’t make him the most popular kid in school, and he is regularly beaten up by bullies. The story opens with him about to take a kicking from Brandon, the heavily muscled menace who has been making Danny’s life a misery.
Things turn a corner for Danny when he is able to scare Brandon off by giving him a message from Brandon’s dead grandmother. As it turns out, being a super geek is not the only thing that makes Danny a little different. He is also a deadseer, someone who can not only see the dead but communicate with them.
Unbeknownst to him, Becky, a Wiccan girl who Danny is somewhat besotted with, has been watching the interaction between Danny and Brandon, and impressed by Danny’s skills, she persuades him to make peace with Brandon and accompany them both to an abandoned TB sanatorium up in the woods where she wants to go ghost hunting.
Things do not turn out entirely as expected for any of them, and as the story develops you uncover all sorts of things that make the night much more than any of them had bargained for.
The story is well written and believable enough to give you a real sense of rising dread as you read. Richard, the author, is fantastic at building tension, and there are lots of little plot twists and loops that keep you guessing from moment to moment. You find yourself chuckling at one part, only to be drawn straight back into a jaw clenching moment of dread the next. It worked very well at keeping you on your toes and made the ghostly elements very troubling, which is what you want in a ghost story.
The ghostly parts are not all about evil however, and I like the fact that Danny has positive experiences as a Deadseer, and is able to draw on those to make this more than a bog standard horror book. The ghostly elements are handled thoughtfully and with depth. The more complex elements of the story set up the possibility that there will be more adventures to come for Danny. I hope there will.
The character of Danny was well drawn, and his voice was believable and evenly sustained. There was never a point where you did not think he was real, or that the author had manipulated a situation to showboat a certain idea, or shoe horn in some facts that were too good to leave out of the final edit.
There were times when the style reminded me somewhat of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, a book which I have reviewed on here already and rated very highly. The subject matter is obviously very different, but both authors inhabit the voice of a teenage boy with ease and a sense of authenticity that adds to the richness of the text. Becky and Brandon, Danny’s friends, were also well drawn and I liked the fact that Becky was a strong character who had as much to add to the adventure as the boys.
The book is quite frightening in places, and there is a reasonable amount of violence, albeit handled in ways that make them fit within the confines of the plot, rather than just dolloped in as a crowd pleaser. Having said that, I would not recommend it for primary aged readers unless you were absolutely sure that they were not going to be up every night for a fortnight with screaming nightmares.
It is ideally suited for both boy and girl readers aged 12 and up.
I very much look forward to reading the next one.