The Briar Book Of The Dead by A. G. Slatter

I have so little time to read lengthy books for pleasure nowadays, so it should give you an idea of exactly how much I rate A. G. Slatter that I absolutely dropped everything to be able to cover her latest novel here. I’m still over a week late with it (because so many books! So little time!) but I’m so glad I made time for this instead of letting it fall into my ever-growing slush pile.

So! The Briar Book Of The Dead starts out a little slowly, as Ellie Briar laments her status as the only Briar cousin without magic. She was trained up well in administration tho, and does her best to serve as Steward of the small town of Silverton, despite her lack of magic and accompanying lack of status. Silverton is an interesting place, being one of the few where witches like herself and her family are allowed to practice in the open by the church, given their proven ability to hold back the vampiric Leech Lords across the border. Ostensibly, they have a priest to oversee their activities to make sure they don’t get too out of hand, but one of Ellie’s responsibilities lies in creating and sending excellent forgeries from their long-dead overseer back to the capital in Lodellan.

Ellie is busy administering to Silverton and its outlying homesteads in and around Balefire Eve when her beloved grandmother Gisela, the ruling Briar Witch, unexpectedly dies. The events of her funeral shake loose Ellie’s latent ability to see the dead. At first, Ellie can’t believe what’s happening to her. Their forebear, Gilly Briar, had banished all ghosts from their town, or so legend claimed. Now Ellie can not only see the ghosts of those lingering behind with a purpose yet unfulfilled, but speak to them as well. These specters desperately need her to lay their souls to rest, and won’t take no for an answer. Whether it’s through righting wrongs for them or providing their restless spirits with absolution, Ellie has her hands full, even before she learns of a deadly conspiracy that could tear apart everything the Briar Witches have struggled for so long to build.

As I mentioned earlier, this book starts out slowly — and given the amount of crime novels I read on the regular, the identity of the Big Bad was plainly obvious to me from about a third of the way in — but really builds momentum as soon as Ellie discovers her supernatural powers. It quickly becomes clear that all that exposition was highly necessary, as Ms Slatter builds towards a terrific resolution. All of the heroines I’ve encountered so far of Ms Slatter’s have been both very smart and very sensible, and Ellie is no different. Which doesn’t mean that she doesn’t get to be moody or romantic. I adore that she gets to be an entire human being with strengths and weaknesses. I might not love her as much as Miren, the heroine of Ms Slatter’s excellent All The Murmuring Bones, but I definitely still want to be her friend too.

I also loved how fully realized and original this fantasy world felt. While it does draw from the standard European fantasy tropes, the stories — including the excellent fairy tales and fables inserted into the text — feel fresh and humane, emphasizing a female point of view and saying “hell no” to patriarchy. There’s a part at the end where I actually feared that Ellie was about to be saved by a man, but I should have had more trust in Ms Slatter’s judgement. I’m not saying that being rescued by a man is a character flaw, but when it comes to myth-making, it’s important for everyone to play autonomous roles in making for a world at once more fair and more realistic. The stories that we tell and propagate matter, which is a large part of why I love all of Ms Slatter’s work. Her books and tales present a clear-eyed view of feminism that is such a necessary through line even in seemingly “frivolous” entertainments.

On a more personal note, I have been trying to get a certain redhead out of my brain these past few weeks, so thanks for nothing, Ms Slatter, even if you absolutely did not write that resemblance on purpose, lol.

The Briar Book Of The Dead by A. G. Slatter was published February 13 2024 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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