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Onyx reviews: Speaks the Nightbird by Robert R. McCammon

After a decade of silence, Robert R. McCammon returns with a historical mystery. In the 1980s, McCammon was a prominent voice in horror. Most of his novels had a historical tinge to them. In the early part of the 1990s, his books became more mainstream and he encountered difficulties with publishers who had him pigeon-holed as a genre writer. He wrote two novels that editors didn't like because they were too much of a departure from his previous material. An editor suggested major changes McCammon couldn't agree to. In frustration, he retired from publishing and stopped writing.

Whoever decided that Speaks the Nightbird was different from McCammon's previous material couldn't have been familiar with his work. Though it is set in Colonial America over three hundred years ago, Nightbird has much in common with Boy's Life, one of his most popular novels: it is a coming-of-age story of sorts.

Matthew Corbett is scrivener-apprentice to Isaac Woodward, a magistrate in the Carolina Colony. They travel to Fount Royal, the southernmost outpost in 1699, where Rachel Howarth stands accused of killing a clergyman and her husband, and also of being a witch.

The combination of a wet spring—with its associated diseases—and the presence of a witch spell doom for Fount Royal unless justice can be served. Residents are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship and Mayor Bidwell believes Rachel's execution—after due process, of course—is the only thing that can save his failing city.

McCammon, through carefully crafted language and unobtrusive application of his extensive research, does a remarkable job of conjuring the mood and feeling of the colonial era. Living conditions are coarse and rough, rats abound, bleeding is acceptable medical practice and chamber pots are part of life. Everyone has secrets.

If readers accept that Rachel isn't a witch, and that no supernatural agent is at work here—and McCammon pushes them strongly in this direction through Matthew's eyes early in the book—then Nightbird becomes a murder mystery. Someone killed Reverend Grove and Daniel Howarth in cold blood, mutilating them to make it appear they were killed by a demon. But what, then, is the explanation for several reliable witnesses who swear convincingly that they saw Rachel consorting with devils? And what is the killer's motive for framing this exotic Portuguese beauty?

The relationship between Woodward and Matthew is reminiscent of William of Baskerville and his apprentice Adso from The Name of the Rose, although in this case the student becomes the stronger personality. Matthew steps from beneath the wings of his mentor to become Rachel's champion in spite of overwhelming pressure to comply. He is curious by nature; his mind is not clouded by tradition. Woodward is of the old school. He is also not at his best -- he lost his luxurious clothing on the voyage and the dank climate weakens him to the point where he can barely speak, let alone conduct a trial.

Though some of the supporting cast tends to blend together, colorful characters like Linch the rat-catcher, Hazelton the blacksmith and traveling preacher Exodus Jerusalem liven the tale. At over 670 pages, Nightbird seems like it might be overly long, but the book does not plod. McCammon successfully maintains the period tone and diction through the entire span of the novel without letting it impede the story. A welcome return after a ten-year absence from publishing.

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