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The Nightingale’s Tooth by Sally McBride

Reviewed by Robert Runté

I have followed Sally McBride’s career since her first story in the original volume of Tesseracts, edited by Judith Merril back in 1985. I used that story (“Totem”) in my lectures for years afterwards as an example of what made Canadian SF different from the American version of the genre. So it was with great excitement I heard she had a new novel coming out and it is every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

The Nightingale’s Tooth is set in 13th-century France in an alternate timeline in which the Huns hold much of Europe and Christ is a forgotten prophet who gave up preaching rather than risk getting in trouble with the authorities. Consequently, Europe is a patchwork of competing religions, with various gods interfering in the affairs of men for their cruel amusement.

Our heroine is Vara Svobodová bint Jameel, the young daughter of a noble household, whose father is a successful merchant trader and whose maternal grandfather is a bit of a Da Vinci figure: scholar, inventor, and Vara’s teacher. Vara suffers from occasional visions which possess her at random inconvenient moments, the significance of which is not immediately obvious. Things take a worrisome turn when one vision shows her death only a few years hence.

Magic in The Nightingale’s Tooth is unique—or at least, I’ve never seen anything quite like it before, though it has the feel of some old-world tradition that might stretch back to the beginning of time. McBride has tapped into timeless archetypes (the eagle, the crone, the orphaned boy) to give a sense of inevitability to how the de resu manifest, even though the characters themselves don’t quite understand how any of it works.

The first half of the book is entirely Vara’s first-person narration; Part Two switches to third-person. It’s a subtle shift in style, one many readers might not consciously notice given that McBride keeps the action going flat out, but it’s one reason this novel is such a tour de force. We also get a second viewpoint character in Part Two, another necessary shift if the resolution of the trust issues that would inevitably arise at the climax is to be believable. Indeed, the novel is perfectly structured, the foreshadowing all there when one gets to that climax and looks back—but you didn’t remotely see that coming, did you? Kind of a Sixth Sense moment, at least it was for me, which is even harder to pull off in print.

Another magnificent novel from Sally McBride, the first in a promised trilogy. I cannot wait to see where she takes things from here.

And hats off to Brain Lag, the oddly named but rapidly rising Canadian SF&F small press that has been knocking them out of the park lately. Publisher Catherine Fitzsimmons has latched onto some of the best Canadian genre talent out there, like Arlene Marks, Hugh Spencer, and now Sally McBride. I’m going to have to start taking a closer look at some of Brian Lag’s other authors because Fitzsimmons really seems to know what she’s doing.


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