Thursday, 11 March 2010

Book review: Horns


By Joe Hill

(Gollancz, 16 March 2010)

From time to time a book comes along that takes you completely by surprise; you pick it up often on a whim you can't really fathom, you expect to reasonably enjoy it but for some reason your expectations are pretty low...and then the book completely blows apart your expectations and turns the tables on you.

For me, Horns was one such book. I freely admit that the only reason I read the book was because I'm intending to go along to Joe Hill's book signing in Manchester next week, and also because Gollancz were kind enough to provide me with a review copy. I thought the blurb on the back sounded reasonably interesting, but it didn't particularly excite me. Nor did the first few chapters; they maintained my interest, but I was hardly engrossed in the novel.

And then somehow - I'm still not sure at which point this occurred - I suddenly found myself unable to point the novel down. The sign of a good book, as far as I'm concerned, is when I think about it when I'm not reading it, and when I am reading it I don't want to stop. Horns certainly had this affect on me. More than that, it utterly bowled me over because I wasn't at all expecting such an absorbing reading experience.

Once, Ig lived the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned American musician, and the younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, Ig had security and wealth and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more - he had the love of Merrin Williams, a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic.

Then beautiful, vivacious Merrin was gone - raped and murdered, under inexplicable circumstances - with Ig the only suspect. He was never tried for the crime, but in the court of public opinion, Ig was and always would be guilty. Now Ig is possessed with a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look, and he means to use it to find the man who killed Merrin and destroyed his life.

Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It's time for a little revenge; it's time the devil had his due.

The characterisation is what makes Horns such a success. Ignatius Perrish is a wonderfully tragic figure, a young man whose life has reached a point of utter meltdown. His various struggles - coping with the loss of his girlfriend and soulmate, dealing with the terrifying demonic abilities that he finds himself in possession of - really invoke the reader's sympathy, and inspire a genuine emotional connection. Ig's ability to discern the deepest, darkest secrets of the people around him provides moments that are humourous, startling and ocasionally heartbreaking. Yet for all of his powers, he's still a scared, confused and vulnerable young man - and seeing him deal with the horrors that come his way is both enjoyable and inspiring. The other major players - Ig's best friend Lee, brother Terry and soulmate Merrin - are equally well-rendered, and Hill creates believable relationships between them that really drive the plot forwards.

Speaking of the plot, it's structured and paced very well indeed, building up to a gripping climax. Hill jumps backwards and forwards through the story's chronology, using multiple POVs in order to ensure that the story is told from both sides. The result is that the reader is able to understand exactly why certain events happened, and to appreciate the emotions and decisions of the characters. This approach makes for a more well-rounded story; Hill clearly understands that the antagonist's perspective and backstory is equally important, and it's enjoyable to see how the motivations of individual characters come together to form a tapestry of love, envy, despair and hope.

Hill's prose is smooth and fluid; he handles exposition superbly and understands the importance of atmosphere (and how best to use it). More importantly, he understands people - for all of the fantastical elements in Horns, it's a book that is essentially about what it is to be human. I was greatly surprised at how emotionally invested I became in the book; it's been a very long time since I've read a novel that has moved me to such a degree. Unelievably, I even feel a little emotional just writing this and thinking about the book. There were certain scenes that I could personally identify with (not the growing of horns, I'd like to point out), and Hill really does absolutely nail these scenes on an emotional level. When you read a scene and think "Yes, that's exactly what it feels like" then the author is clearly doing something right. This happened more than once during my reading of the book.

Verdict: Horns is many things: a tragic love story, a tale of revenge, an examination of human emotion and a startling picture of what love and hate can drive people to do. It's lucid, funny and intelligent. It's also sad, touching and - at times - utterly heartbreaking. But most of all it's utterly brilliant in conception and execution, a startling mix of childhood joy, adult despair, and a touch of midsummer magic. Horns is one of the most emotionally-engaging books I've ever read, and if that's not a good recommendation then I don't know what is.


Jason Baki said...

Great review! I've read really positive things about Horns from a number of bloggers. Will give this a try soon I think.

ediFanoB said...

Since I follow your blog I read your excellent reviews with great interest. You don't give away compliments easily. Therefore I know when you write -
"Horns is one of the most emotionally-engaging books I've ever read, and if that's not a good recommendation then I don't know what is." -
that this book must be a gem. Interestingly enough it is on my wife's book list and not on mine.
Anyway we will get Horns sooner or later.

Thank you

ediFanoB said...

I found your review so convincing that I posted about it in my Roundup.

T.D. Newton said...

Hey, I saw an app on the iPhone store for a Fighting Fantasy: Deathtrap Dungeon game and it made me think of you and your penchant for the series. Thought you'd like to know.

James said...

Jason - thanks, and yes do read it!

edifanoB - thanks, much appreciated.

TD - thanks for that, though not having an iPhone means I won't be able to indulge...