Summary: (4/5 stars) This was a Sword and Laser pick from last year and for whatever reason I ignored their recommendation at the time. Thankfully, they mentioned it again in their recap episode. This is a contemporary-era fantasy novel set in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. The Hyatt family starts seeing death omens just as their daughter arrives home, injured from a tour of duty in Iraq. The magic in this book is mysterious and subtle and explained only very slowly. I really enjoyed the fact that the stakes in the book are really personal unlike in epic fantasy books. And, of course, I also enjoyed the multi-faceted portrayal of southern culture. I’ll definitely pick up the second book in this series soon.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
The Hum and the Shiver begins with a death omen and Private Bronwyn Hyatt’s return to eastern Tennessee from a tour of duty in Iraq. She was badly injured and is hailed as a hero by the media. The novel follows her as she recovers and gets re-acclimated to her home and tried to take back up the traditions of the Tufa of which she is one.
It’s clear immediately that the Tufa are not “normal.” They have dark complexions, black hair, and perfectly white teeth. They’re described as being non-white, but can pass for pretty much any race as needed. Most are friendly to visitors, but manage to also be standoffish and really prefer to be left alone. There are some hints that they are exceptionally long-lived as well. And they’re all generally very attractive and have a supernatural connection to music.
Everyone expects that Bronwyn’s mother is whose death the omens are foretelling. So, Bronwyn needs to rebuild her musical abilities quickly and then learn her “mother’s song.” It’s a special tune passed down mother to daughter by the head families of the two main Tufa clans and Bronwyn is the only daughter her family has. So, it seems time is short.
There are a lot of other things going on here, so I’ll cut to the chase. It turns out Bronwyn and the Tufa are actually descended from fairies. They use music to connect to their magic and they’re even able to fly at night. And Bronwyn has to decide how important it is to her to carry on their traditions while also defending her family from a rival Tufa clan. I’ll stop there because I don’t want to spoil everything.
It’s a bit of a slow burn of a book, but it didn’t feel tedious or slow to me. The characterization in this book is very strong. Each individual has a strong, clear voice and individual traits that make them interesting. And the good guys are all likable in different ways and the bad guys are clearly awful. I also liked how there’s magic, but it’s not like people are walking around throwing fire balls or anything. It’s very subtle, but powerful. Enough clues and hints are dropped about it that I kept wanting to learn more.
The story is also very solid. As mentioned, this isn’t epic fantasy. There is a broader conflict in the valley that is hinted, but this book focuses on smaller, more personal conflicts.
The fact that this book is set in the south and doesn’t rely on stereotypes is also very welcome. As a southerner, it’s really nice to see such a well-rounded portrayal.
The only thing that really bothered me is that the character use “y’all” in the singular several times. “Y’all” is a contraction of “you all” and it’s specifically used to refer to more than one person. I’ll spare you a lecture on the linguistic value of this word and how I think it is properly used. In a FB comment thread, I’ve come to wonder if there isn’t a regional variation on usage of the term in which people from more inland south (I grew up in coastal south Georgia.) from Appalachia toward Arkansas don’t use “y’all” in the singular. The author is from west Tennessee and a friend of mine from Arkansas said he uses y’all in the singular. So, maybe. I am inclined to trust the author’s instinct, so there has to be some explanation for this annoyance. There’s an article on Mental Floss that suggests some other explanations as well.
Otherwise, this is a great fantasy novel with a unique voice, an interesting magic system, and a strong plot. I will absolutely pick up book number 2 in the near future.
AFFILIATE LINK: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe