By Marty Mulrooney
Four and Twenty Blackbirds is a supernatural thriller written by award-winning author Cherie Priest. It tells the story of Eden Moore, an orphan watched over by three dead women as a gunman continually tries to hunt her down. Full of Southern flavour and African black magic, Titan Books have recently published Priest’s debut novel – originally released in 2005 in the US – as a paperback original for the very first time in the UK.
More than anything else, Four and Twenty Blackbirds paints an exceptionally realistic and vivid portrait of a troubled, strong-headed young woman. The title character Eden Moore grows throughout the course of the book from a little girl into a young woman and the transformation couldn’t be more natural or enjoyable to read. Throughout Eden’s life, she is hunted by her crazy cousin, Malachi. He peruses her through the woods when she is a child, a gun in his hand and murder in his eyes. As a woman on the brink of adulthood, she lives to see him shoot several rounds meant for her in a crowded local bar.
Yet Eden’s messed up family history is only the beginning of her troubles. Throughout her entire life, as well as dodging bullets, she is dogged by ghosts. Three ghosts to be exact – all sisters and distant relations of Eden, viciously murdered by her great-grandfather, an African magician who sought eternal life by any means necessary. An evil man who should be long dead, but seems intent on returning from the grave…
“Banana cream pie. Four and twenty blackbirds take to the sky.”
I opened my eyes and she was looking at me, teeth locked together. “When the sky is filled up, with all the feathered wings…” She drew me forward, dragging me out of my horrified haze.
“The birds will come protect us, from all those other things. Come on, Eden.”
Four and Twenty Blackbirds is being marketed as ‘Southern Gothic’, a subgenre of Gothic fiction that takes place exclusively in the American South. Cherie Priest lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee for 12 years and she deftly brings the area to life, with Eden Moore’s mixed-race complexion often evoking racial tensions, especially from her bitter and twisted great-aunt Eliza. As Eden sets out to uncover her family history and the secrets buried therein – much to her voluptuous aunt Lulu’s chagrin – the reader too becomes engrossed by newly discovered blood ties and once hidden truths.
There is no denying that this is an accomplished debut, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is perfect. The pacing can be slightly uneven at times and tangents don’t always pan out. A deviation in the plot earlier on sees Eden combating a menacing apparition in a bathroom building at Camp Lookout, one of the most chilling passages I have read in a very long time. It sets up the plot point that Eden can see ghosts extremely well, but the supporting characters – one in particular actually inspires the title of this book – don’t last beyond the chapter. It’s a shame, as the ghostly elements are actually far more effective and believable than the creepy swamp voodoo elements that ultimately prevail.
The last thing I remembered before waking was that it was not like the first brew. It was almost sweet and not half so bad, which didn’t make it good, but I didn’t gag on it, either.
“What are you doing to me with this stuff?” I gurgled as the room started to fold in upon itself.
I’m getting you ready for it. I’m making you strong.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds has confirmed Cherie Priest as one of my favourite authors writing today. At times there is an almost pulpy quality to her writing, but by no means is this a complaint. It is easy to see how her more recent books (such as the fantastic Bloodshot, reviewed here) have built on the foundations of Eden Moore. Indeed, it is Eden Moore that makes this novel – and I assume its follow-ups – worth reading. The story can seem slightly hokey at times, especially as the ending draws near. Yet Eden is anything but, a character that feels startlingly real and alive. She is a kick-ass female protagonist and in contemporary fiction, nobody writes those better than Cherie Priest.
8 OUT OF 10