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Spotlight on: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon

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Speaks the Nightbird, Volume I: Judgment of the Witch by Robert McCammon Robert McCammon, Speaks the Nightbird, Volume I: Judgment of the Witch
Robert McCammon, Speaks the Nightbird, Volume II: Evil Unveiled

Seven years after the Salem witch trials, the Southern colonies are seeing some of the same action. The citizens of the new settlement of Fount Royal blame recent widow Rachel Howarth for all their recent tribulations, including the murders of the local preacher and her own husband, and a rash of fires that has claimed some of the town's important buildings.

Traveling magistrate Isaac Woodward, accompanied by his clerk Matthew Corbett, has been called to preside over the trial that is planned purely to speed the execution of Madam Howarth as a witch. It the majority of the town had its way about it, she would be burned immediately, but the magistrate is determined to see that justice is served. It is Matthew, however, who is most interested in pursuing the final truth of the matter, especially once the evidence -- although damning on the surface -- just doesn't seem to gel properly.

Speaks the Nightbird was Robert McCammon's first published novel in a decade and was finally released along with the announcement of his retirement. Written years before, it took a long time to publish because publishers expected him to write only horror, that they could sell, and they didn't know how to market this new work (even though he had been leaving the horror genre over the last few books). McCammon became thoroughly disgusted with the industry and longed to wash his hands of it entirely, focusing instead on fatherhood.

This was unfortunate for us because Speaks the Nightbird is his best book to date, even, in many ways, triumphing his previous masterpieces, Boy's Life and Swan Song. It is an epic historical novel combining suspense with a murder mystery, American colonial history, and a little romance, the likes of which I have never seen.

McCammon uses this somewhat-familiar format to make several comments about human nature, and especially people's responses to the unknown (and the mob mentality). The accused's foreign heritage (Portuguese, in this case -- not far from the hated Spaniards) and dark skin plays a sizable role in her accusation, but McCammon makes subtle use of this fact.

Speaks the Nightbird, Volume II: Evil Unveiled by Robert McCammon The setting is so clearly laid out that I felt as if I could draw a map of Fount Royal, and I still have a clear picture of many of the locations in my mind. Also, the characters brought out genuine emotion from me, whether it was love or hate. Part of what makes Speaks the Nightbird so appealing is the realism in McCammon's portrayal of colonial times. The amount of research that must have gone into it is very apparent and admirable. (Though McCammon's use of stately words like "gaol" and "poppet" is at first distracting, it soon becomes simply part of the book's beauty.)

Originally published in one hardcover volume by River City Publishing, McCammon's usual paperback purveyor Pocket Books decided to split the book into two separate volumes. Volume II: Evil Unveiled is not a separate story; it simply picks up where Volume I left off. However, it does have a different tone, emphasizing the coming-of-age and murder-mystery aspects of the story, and winding down the story in general towards its completion.

Young Matthew defies Magistrate Woodward and continues to look for evidence of Rachel's innocence in the few days remaining before her judgment is to be delivered. In the largest sense, this is about him becoming his own man. He also discovers love and this makes the investigation even more emotional and suspenseful. His discoveries regarding the citizens of Fount Royal are stunning to say the least. Apparently absolutely nothing is as it seems in this town and McCammon reveals these secrets with aplomb, leading us along willingly until he decides to spring another surprise on us. This novel could have been a lot shorter, but most of the reasons I liked it so much would have been lost.

The end descends into the murder-mystery cliche of the perpetrator being discovered and the "detective" (Matthew) offering up his speculation as to what happened. This part is fun, if you're a mystery buff, but actually breaks the mood a bit. Luckily, McCammon followed it up with a whiz-bang ending that left me -- after nine hundred pages -- still wanting more! Also luckily, it kept the door opened for the possible sequel that has recently been announced, The Queen of Bedlam. The author, as stated in an interview early in 2005, hopes to write four or five books with Matthew Corbett (though not of this length), and I for one will be eagerly awaiting their publication.

Here's hoping that the success of Speaks the Nightbird has revived McCammon's interest in writing (and publishing). He is one of our greats and should be supported in whatever genre he chooses to write.

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