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Monday, March 8, 2021

The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston review


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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Gabriela was born and raised in Poland, brought up on a diet of mythologies and fairy tales. She spent her summers exploring the woods, foraging and animal tracking with her family. At 19, Gabriela moved to London to study English Literature and obtained a Masters's degree in Literatures of Modernity. She has worked as an assistant editor and as a freelance writer. Gabriela’s short stories have been selected for the Editor’s Choice Review by Bewildering Stories and have been featured on the Ladies of Horror Fiction podcast. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

GENRE: Fairy Tale, 

FORMAT/INFO: The Second Bell publishes March 9th 2021 with Angry Robot. Length - 304 p. Cover design by Glen Wilkins.


OVERVIEW: The Second Bell follows Salka, a young woman born with two hearts. That makes her a striga, a monster her townsfolk fear and try to kill in the cradle. Except, her mother, Miriat, won’t let it happen. They flee the town and find shelter in a community of outcasts high in the mountains. Nineteen years later, Salka finds herself in a life-threatening situation. Accused of endangering others, she’s banished to a remote place. To survive the harsh winter, she must embrace her second heart’s power. And this can turn her into a monstrous stigoi.

I loved the story’s setting! Houston has a knack for creating vivid images of desolate landscapes, dangerous forests, and showing the raw beauty of nature. I could breathe the cool mountain air and feel the icy wind sting my cheeks. I found the descriptions excellent, and the imagery evocative. Houston reveals the world as the characters interact with it, and presents it through the lens of their mood and current situation. Plus, you can’t get enough of fantasy inspired by pre-Christian Slavic folklore.

The story goes small in scale; it revolves around a group of characters, their relationships, beliefs, and moments of truth. Petty behavior and small people acting small out of jealousy, greed, or fear move the plot forward. I found it frustrating. I understand the author wanted to show how much we can sacrifice for blood ties and that passionate (be it romantic or maternal) love blinds, but I found story drivers unconvincing and cliché. 

Salka and Miriat’s story is nuanced and satisfying. Miriat stood up to her community (more than once) for her child, despite her society’s conviction all two-hearted children carry evil inside. She sacrificed her life for her daughter. Salka, while independent and headstrong, loves her mother and listens to her in crucial moments. Their relationship felt true, mainly because we follow the story mostly through their point-of-view. Unfortunately, other parents/child duos fall flat. We don’t get to know them, but their petty and egoistical behavior serves as a device to move the story forward. 

And this leads to my biggest gripe about the story, namely inconsistent narration. The point of view switches between omniscient, and third-person limited deep POV, frequently in a single chapter. Sometimes, more than once in a single chapter. To make matters worse, the POV slips from one person to another in the space of a few paragraphs. I assume it’s a deliberate choice - the book is traditionally published and, as such, underwent at least a few editorial passes. I found it jarring. Sure, it gave us glimpses of the train of thought of secondary characters (Dran, Kalina, Emila, villagers) but such glimpses showed them as individuals lacking complexity and with shallow motivations. For me, it weakened the narrative instead of making it more nuanced. 

Listen, I know that rules are for fools, but I can’t help it. I crave a consistent point of view. I dislike when writers drift from one point of view to another. I dunno, maybe the intention was to create an omniscient perspective through an assemblage of third-person limited perspectives? If you, as a reader, have no issue with it, disregard the paragraph above. I won’t judge you. 

Despite everything, I enjoyed the story. It takes shortcuts, but remains intriguing and heartfelt. With its immersive setting and relatable protagonists, The Second Bell offers enough to maintain readers’ immersion.

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