The Hum and the Shiver
by Alex Bledsoe
Tor Books (2011)
I received an advance uncorrected proof of this novel early in the summer, eager to read my first Alex Bledsoe novel after hearing good things about Blood Groove and Dark Jenny. But what I wasn't expecting, even after reading the plot summary on the back of the book, was the kind of story Alex had cooked up in The Hum and the Shiver.
Set in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Private Brownyn Hyatt has returned home to great fanfare as a wounded war hero from Iraq. She doesn't feel like a hero, however, emotionally wounded as well as physically. Her real healing begins once back home with her parents and younger brother in the hills outside of town, among her people, the Tufa, a rather mysterious race with no known origin--they were simply there when the European settlers arrived. Music plays heavily in the Tufa heritage, and it's through Brownyn's reintroduction to music through her mandolin, Magda, she hopes to start feeling normal again.
But, a haint is looming around her family's home, a ghostly omen that waits for Brownyn with a threat of death in the family--and not necessarily hers. If spirits weren't haunting enough, her past comes back to visit her as well. A wild child with a reputation as "The Brownynator", her restless spirit is still trying to find its way, as her ex-boyfriend tries to rekindle their hard-edged romance, and reporters lurk around every corner to get her life story. Not to mention, a new preacher in the area is compelled to get to know the aloof war hero, too.
While I originally thought this novel would concern itself primarily with the haint and its deathly premonitions, and what Brownyn must do to prevent someone close to her from dying, the book is much less plot driven than it is hinged on the strength of its characters. Brownyn is at once tough as nails, but vulnerable to her fiery demeanor and aimless recovery. And the specter of death poses as much a threat to her reliving her trauma in the war as it does to enduring any impending tragedy in the family. She's the kind of girl, who at arm's length would earn the reputation as promiscuous and an all-round bad seed, but there's a genuine and sympathetic story to how she earned that reputation.
The supporting characters came off equally strong too, with a steely father who wants to protect his daughter without coddling her, and a mother who is relieved to have her home, yet harbors her own tumultuous emotions around Brownyn's return and future. The preacher is likable as well, offering a great outsider's view of Brownyn and the Tufa, as he tries to learn more about her and build a congregation among a people with no need or want of him and his religion. Even the "villains" are spared the standard template and given sincere motivations for their behavior. Her ex-boyfriend might be a grade-A dick, but at least you learn why and can relate to a small degree.
The book does take its fantastical turn about halfway through, and honestly, I found it a bit jarring when it happened. I was worried it might throw the pace of the novel off and send the story veering off into left field, but once those elements were finally brought out into the open, it all seemed to fit quite well. I did find there was one character, the reporter with a Tufa connection, to be a bit tacked on, it didn't really hinder the story. As a whole, the book is as much a modest bit of magic as the Tufa. Strong storytelling, damn near perfect characterization and dialogue, and a wholly satisfying end. I'm even more eager to read more of Alex's work after reading The Hum and the Shiver, and I bet you will too.