Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire
Synopsis from GoodReads:
Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.
It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.
They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.
You can’t kill what’s already dead.
So apparently this book is going to/does have a sequel. Also apparently, according to the framing device and GoodReads, it fits into the InCryptid series ‘verse. Now both of those are problematic for me, but for different reasons. So, taking them one at a time:
Firstly, the sequel. This book felt like a stand-alone. There was no sign or hint that it was anything but. Until I reached the end of the book where [redacted for spoilers]. Then it felt like the first book in a series. But only then. And that’s not what I was looking for. But I can live with it.
Secondly, however, fitting into the InCryptid series. This book is not marketed that way, at least not on the version that I have. But that’s fine, that’s the publishing house’s problem, and I’ve seen this happen before and in worse ways. No, the problem is that it does not fit. Yes, both worlds are Urban Fantasy. But you can’t just take two completely different UF worlds and say ‘yes these two can meet’. There has to be an internal logic, an internal consistency, and an internal mythology. But Sparrow Hill Road‘s mythology seems to be completely separate from the mythology of InCryptid. There’s no mention of cryptids outside of the framing device (that this novel is supposedly put together by Kevin and Evelyn Price and contains notes of theirs on the creatures therein, but that doesn’t hang together either since the entire book is First-Person Rose). There’s no hint that cryptids exist. And in the InCryptid series there’s no hint of the ‘twilight America’ that ghosts inhabit. Oh, sure, there are ghosts. Verity and Alexander (the two narrators, so far, for the series) even mention an ‘Aunt Mary’ who happens to be a ghost (and is likely the Mary in this novel). But they don’t talk about Route-witches, umbramancers, the different kinds of ghosts… Yes, they’re focused on cryptids, but you’d think there’d be some mention of at least some of these creatures in their books or at least some mention of cryptids in Rose’s book.
Leaving aside those two problems – to me, at least – I really enjoyed Sparrow Hill Road. The reason it took me so long to get through is not a reflection on the novel, the writing, or even the fact that it’s in first person. It’s a reflection on the style of the novel.
Sparrow Hill Road reads like a collected newspaper serial, along the lines of the short stories in the Sherlock Holmes cannon, or, alternatively, like a volume of collected comic book issues. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it does give each chapter an episodic feel. They do all build together and there is an underpinning plot, but each chapter can also be read as fairly self-contained, provided you’ve been following along from the beginning of the collection. So it’s easy to walk away and come back, much as you would if you were waiting for the next release of a comic – or the next week of a TV show. Again, I personally didn’t find this a weakness, but I can see how some people might.
Further, Rose is… well, she’s a lot like other female protagonists. She’s not interchangeable, and I’m not saying that just because she’s a ghost, but she’s also not something I haven’t read before. So while I liked her I didn’t get super invested in her, personally. Some of the side characters were a lot more interesting, and I think there’s a lot there that McGuire can dig into in subsequent installments. But that disconnect from the POV character might also contribute to how long I was willing to go between chapters.
While the novel ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, the emotional payoff was eminently acceptable, even enjoyable. While I would’ve preferred a more permanent conclusion, I’m happy enough with the ending that I’m not too exercised about there being more to come.
A solid 3 star read, but definitely a good read for October considering all the ghosts and other undead, to say nothing of the occasionally spooky atmosphere.