Book Review: The Twisted Tree by Rachel Burge

Genre: YA, Horror
Publishing Info: Hot Key Books (2019)
Pages: 242

Back Cover Summary:

Martha can tell things about a person just by touching their clothes, as if their emotions and memories have been absorbed into the material. It began the day she fell from the tree and became blind in one eye.

Determined to understand her strange ability, Martha sets off to visit her grandmother, Mormor – only to discover Mormor is dead and a peculiar boy is in her cabin.

Then the spinning wheel starts creaking, terror creeps in and Martha is faced with an impossible decision…

‘When the fog rises, run for home, my child. Dead men rise with the mist.’

This Young Adult take on the saturated horror genre chooses to lock in on mythology that allows the author to produce some great scares and a decent narrative, which prevents the book from collapsing under the weight of the below-par YA elements.

Horror stories in the past decade or so have gone away from the tired slasher and gore trope and towards creating a consistently terrifying supernatural adversary for the protagonists, quite often from a lesser known religion or mythology. Burge’s decision to focus on Norse mythology certainly distances itself from other similar tales and provides a good amount of material to work with. The Draugr, an unnaturally fast and large creature with claws for hands and a skull instead of a human face, on paper is a solid supernatural threat. However, I found that the most effective uses of the mythology in this book came from the Norns and the power of the Twisted Tree itself – the use of trapped souls that would appear from the shadows were very menacing. I also found that the ancestry narrative, whereby a descendent of Odin would have to water the tree every day or risk these souls and other supernatural beings escaping from Hell, was more successful than it sounded. Less so was the inclusion of Hel, the Norse goddess of the Underworld, who appeared for all of one chapter to give important information and did not appear again; I felt like more could have been done with them.

In a similar way, the writing is at its best when it conveys a sustained sense of dread that the protagonist, Martha, is feeling. Nameless things lurk in the shadows, mystical journals flick over to certain pages and the electricity switches off. The language really reflects that and as a reader, you are waiting for the next big haunting or scare to occur. This is balanced quite well for a good portion of the book, however too many jump scares are utilised towards the end of the book, rendering them largely ineffective and expected. I also felt like every chapter seemed to end on a cliffhanger only for most of the following chapters to begin on the next morning. Overall, I found there to be several creepy moments and I am glad that I read this book over the course of four hours in the daylight.

On the flip side, I felt that the quality of writing dipped when the book was taken out of its horror routes and placed firmly into Young Adult romance territory. Martha was a decent enough protagonist, which is good considering the author’s reasoning as to her naming, when the horror of the novel was at its highest – being blind in one eye after falling from the tree as a child was a twist that prevented her from falling into the stereotypical feisty young female trope. I also thought that her ability to be able to read emotions off people just from their clothing was a good addition, though it didn’t really add much narrative wise. Less successful was the designated male protagonist, a teenage runaway called Stig, who played off the usual isolated male who reveals to Martha why he is this way. A twist in the last couple of pages that try to make the readers question all we know about him did not work very well, not least because this twist could have made a large impact on the overall narrative, rather than leave the book on a potential cliff-hanger, which makes little sense when this reads as a stand-alone that doesn’t need a sequel.

The Twisted Tree was a decent read that did well to deviate itself from the saturated horror genre with Norse influences that worked for the most part. The feeling of dread was well conveyed as well. However, the Young Adult influences were a mixed bag and the decision to try and end the book on a cliff-hanger did not work at all. It was a good read but could have been even better had certain elements been more prominent.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆

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