This is a weird story by Kate Heartfield, even by fantasy standards. I admit I chose this book solely because it’s set in medieval Bruges. I love Bruges! It’s like a fucking fairy tale or something. (Please tell me you get that reference.*)
Heartfield spins a tale, but one of fire and brimstone rather than fairies. Hell is a beast controlled by the Chatelaine. She comes to Flanders to help King Philippe of France put down the rebellion. The Chatelaine is determined to become ruler of a land and gives King Philippe aid so that he’ll make her the Duchess of Flanders.
And oh yeah, besides being a physical beast that consumes people and creates revenants that haunt and prey on their families, people can and do live inside the beast. It is bridled like a horse and has locks inside of various room made up of the beast’s internal organs. The Chatelaine has locked her husband (the devil?) in a deep level chamber. Those who live in hell eat the beast’s blood. The Chatelaine controls the beast with her mace of locks. (I told you this is a weird book.)
Meanwhile in Bruges, Margriet’s husband, Willem, turns into a revenant and tricks her into letting him into her home, so now she has the plague. Willem grabs a secret stache of silver, gold, and other trinkets and hightails off to Hell. Margriet’s determined to get her and her daughter’s previously unknown inheritance back. So she and Beatrix follow him to hell. Along the way Beatrix has to confront the death of her own husband.
Claude, a transgender man at arms, had come to Bruges to find Willem to get a mace he sold him back. When Claude learns Willem took a bag of treasures, including a mace, with him to hell, he offers to go with Margriet and Beatrix to protect them in exchange for the mace. From there chaos issues and you learn Margriet had previously won the right of free rides on the water nix (snake made of sticks).
I liked Calude’s character and that he was a good person without the trappings of one; he kills, swears, steals, and etc., but as a profession or for survival. Examining the possible life of a trans in the Middle Ages was interesting, and maybe because of this we get more of his inner workings than any other character. I also enjoyed Margriet as she’s a hardass. She goes on a journey to hell seemingly out of sheer stubbornness and sense of outrage. Her case is sympathetic – now that she’s dying of the plague she wants her daughter set up securely with what is rightly hers. But this is not some noble journey for the greater good, which sets the story apart from other hero motifs.
I’m not really sure how I feel about this book overall. It was entertaining, but the entire time I thought what is going on? There wasn’t enough background explained to set up the current story. Like what exactly is a nix and how did Margriet get one? Why are there nixes and creatures of hell but no other magical beings?
The Chatelaine wanted to rule a land, but why? It’s explained she knew hell’s resources were limited as it was slow going creating an army. Okay, that explains the alliance with King Philippe and not trying to take over the entire world. But it doesn’t explain why she wants to rule a land in the first place, especially when she mentioned she only her minions would be living above ground and she would spend most of her time in hell. And we never learned more about her husband. Where did the Chatelaine come from, why was she picked, who is her husband? What’s his story and how did she trap him? What’s her advisor’s MO? His storyline is just left hanging. So many questions! The story has too many holes and loose threads.
I have a lot of complaints, but I also wouldn’t say I disliked the book either. I mostly just wanted a fuller, more detailed picture to make more sense of it. Because the story doesn’t build of more familiar fantasy elements, it really needed more background. Otherwise you feel slightly off kilter while reading it. What part of the story we did get was good though, and I don’t regret picking it.
I really hope someone else who has read this book comments with their thoughts, because this is definitely one of those books you want to discuss with others when you’re done.
*The reference is to the movie In Bruges.