Saturday, August 9, 2008


Bob Freeman's Keepers of the Dead continues the saga of Cairnwood Manor and its resident population of werewolves, vampires, zombies, gargoyles, and sorcerers, introduced in his first novel, Shadows Over Somerset. Though some prior knowledge doesn't hurt, Keepers qualifies as much as a standalone novel as it does a sequel.

Cairnwood Manor, an ancient seat of magical power, and the Cairnwood family, who are charged with preventing that power falling into darker hands than theirs, are under seige by a rival clan—not to mention those insidious others who would play both sides against the other for their own purposes. Michael Cairnwood, the new lord of the manor, has made a painful return from brink of death and found that circumstances on the homefront are anything but what he might desire, particularly since he and his enemies happen to share a common ancestry.

The first thing I discovered is that Keepers, much like its predecessor, is loaded with characters—almost too many to keep track of—and they just keep coming over the course of the book. To his credit, Mr. Freeman devotes enough space to the primary players to define and hone their personalities; also to his credit, he renders none of them in pure black and white. It's often difficult to delineate protagonists and antagonists, since all have their unique motivations and none fall easily into the cliched role of hero/villain. It's refreshing to find that the ostensible protagonists are hardly creatures of goodness and light and the antagonists aren't simply wicked because being wicked is just so much damned fun.

The downside of all this is that, particularly in the opening chapters, there's a lot more telling than showing, with characters' personalities and purposes simply described rather than developed naturally. For a time, it's difficult to distinguish who belongs to which clan and whether he or she is going to be important to the plot. Characters come and go, oftentimes killed off before their relevance seems firmly established.

Conversely, once the main characters begin to become real and have evoked some reader sympathy, Freeman pulls no punches and establishes a sense of tragedy when their fates are less than happy. I admire the fact that not everyone who meets a bad end does so because they're just too nasty to live, and a few of these fateful moments prove to be rather poignant.

Make no mistake, there are unhappy ends aplenty. The novel's pace is oftentimes breakneck, and vicious fighting between supernatural beasties abounds. Some of it manages to be exciting, yet it tends to overshadow the plot's more subtle intrigue, which is really what holds this book together. Freeman has a capable hand for suspense, and I would like to have seen a tad more of it, rather than another knock-down-drag-out altercation.

The edition I read was an uncorrected proof copy, and I hope some of the rough edges will be ironed out in the regular edition. A lot of the errors consist of subject-verb tense disagreement, various grammar usage issues, and other such problems, which are at best distracting and at worst exasperating. Writers do need good editors (yours truly, without question); I trust Black Death Books has one on hand...?

There's no question that Keepers is a better novel than Shadows Over Somerset. Knowing that Mr. Freeman is more than a little dedicated to his craft, I foresee bigger and better things on the horizon for him. I'll be curious to see where he goes from here.

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