Review of Comet Weather by Liz Williams

This original, gripping novel embodies a profound understanding of the magical nuances of English folklore as it percolates through contemporary life. Modern miracles such as instantaneous digital communication exist comfortably alongside the uncanny incursions of historical figures, landscapes whose geography changes without warning, and the Behenian stars, which manifest as eerily beautiful young women with a taste for exquisite couture.

As well as a gloriously visceral sense of place, the story has a great hook. A year before the events of the novel, the mother of four sisters whose ability to see realities unnoticed by most people in busy capitalist Britain suggest a touch of the fae, mysteriously vanishes. Her disappearance seems to be linked to more sinister visitations, both from the titular comet and from a creepy brother-and-sister team who, like all trendy irritants, are both more and less than they appear.

The narrative moves between the points of view of the four sisters as they find their way home to the family house, an enchanted old building in deepest Somerset. The women, in their twenties and thirties, are all used to visitations by the uncanny. Indeed, one of the novel’s many charms is the matter-of-fact way the sisters accept the cryptic advice of talking trees, the kindness of a spectral paramour, and the guidance of their long-dead grandfather, who appears as a blue spark above his own grave.

The author creates this unique sensibility via an ingenious system of images and patterns, such as the way the sisters’ names and jobs echo themes in the novel. Serena is a fashion designer whose creations reflect the landscape of her home and the outfits worn by the Behenian stars. In a twist that perfectly captures the novel’s wry wit, one of them even shows up on the catwalk of a local fashion show featuring Serena’s clothes. Luna, whose name subtly reminds us that the family home is call Mooncote, is a traveller gifted with deeper insight, guided by tidal forces that underlie both the landscape and the various dimensions it nourishes. In her mother’s absence Bee is the de facto matriarch, and tends the house and its enchanted orchard where a ghostly lover resides. Bees and swarms of light recur throughout the novel, often as defenders against the darker forces whose power gathers with the comet’s arrival. Stella, whose name reflects the stars she comes to know so well, is a DJ, and the theme of music is linked to the artifact at the heart of the mystery, as well as to Serena’s errant boyfriend who is the lead singer in a band.

The book is also unified by the theme of female power, which is shown to be as much to do with loyalty and practical stoicism as it is with inspiration and the sudden need to embark on quests through hidden landscapes rich with wonder and menace. The sisters, each of whom has a different father, join forces with male allies – who are just as sympathetically-drawn – to confront puzzles and ancient monsters. Generational relationships are key here, from the way the missing mother nonetheless exerts influence, to the relationship between Serena and her daughter, and Luna’s reaction to falling pregnant, with the additional pressure this development places on her, particularly at the climax.

These patterns create a beguiling tension, ensuring that the book is compelling without ever resorting to tedious ‘action’ sequences or melodrama. Indeed, the characters have genre expectations of their own, often referencing movies like Pirates of the Caribbean when accosted by the truly occult, which then confounds them still further. This conceptual originality makes the violence that does occur all the more shocking.

What truly makes this book great, however, is the author’s mastery of language. Crisp as the frost on a country morning, it blends the fantastical and the everyday to create a believable portrait of folkloric England in the early 21st century. The author has a deep awareness of the cadences of pagan mythology, and how it is as much the music of the words as the stories they impart that haunts our dreams and aspirations.

Comet Weather is my personal Book of the Year for 2020, and I am delighted that a sequel, Blackthorne Winter, has already been published with two more to come – four books for four sisters. Its themes of freedom, mutual respect and acceptance make it the ideal January lockdown read, and I highly recommend it.

Buy Comet Weather here:

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