The Hallows by HL Tinsley

Ancient Bloodlines

Illicit Substances

Floating Nuns

With a tagline like that, alongside the mysteriously strange yet beautiful cover created by Dawn Larder, you immediately know that HL Tinsley’s latest novel is going to be something different. I’m a huge fan of her writing and the grimdark fantasy world she created in The Vanguard Chronicles. The Hallows has the same characteristic HL Tinsley writing style I love so much, but with this novel she’s changed direction, this time using the grim noir genre to great effect.

The Hallows is a short standalone novel exploring the issue of how people adapt when faced with change. Set in an era reminiscent of the 1920s, two separate races try to coexist during a tumultuous period of history. Humans are in the ascendency, whilst a race known as the Auld Bloods faces the prospect of life as their magical powers wane. Religion is another key theme in this novel. The Aulds worship the Auld God but the church is also going through a period of upheaval. Led by their charismatic Mother Superior Ashya, the church has had to adjust. Whilst it remains a religious institution, it now operates its affairs through the powerful Providence Company, their key function being the regulation and use of a substance known as hallow.

Hallow is the root of magic in this world. Fatal to humans, Auld Bloods who take hallow are able to unlock specific magical abilities such as heightened perception (sixers), strength (stouts) and persuasion (sirens). Continued use eventually leads to physical transformation, although some Aulds are unable to survive the change. For example, Mother Aysha is a seven-foot-tall reptilian creature, her true form as an Auld Blood Ancient, which has been unlocked through the use of hallow over the centuries.

Many Aulds choose not to take hallow, appearing indistinguishable from humans as a result. In the past, they would have been transformed by hallow into fantastical and varied beings. Now the two races live together side by side, the magic of the Aulds carefully managed and regulated by teams of assessors, who work for the Providence Company. The assessors’ role can be dangerous, and they each use code names as a result, which is inspired by the name of the unit to which they are assigned. In the novel the central character is Camellia (Cam), a sixer working for the Garden crew alongside other units such as the Weeklies and the Dockers.

This is a novel with some dark themes and darker moments. However, what I particularly enjoyed was how it’s also a very British novel, with a sense of fun and moments of laugh out loud humour running through it. There’s tea, people go on picnics and sometimes they are forced to eat awful quiche at funerals, and these things are all skilfully woven into this fantasy world in a way that feels credible and real. In my opinion, very few people can deliver a comic line as deftly and with such perfect timing as Tinsley.

“The term ‘built like a brick shit house’ could have been coined to describe Angeli. He had the look of a man whose shadow could beat you to a pulp.”

All of Tinsley’s characters shine in this novel. There’s a real sense of love, respect and found family amongst the assessors. The moments of bickering and snark between Cam, Forget-Me-Not, Daffodil (Daff) and Lavender as the Garden Crew are well-written and give the novel heart and soul. Daff and Cam have a great relationship and despite being very different people I really believed in their friendship. Forget-Me-Not was another of my favourites and this passage captures him perfectly.

“Forget-Me-Not was wandering down the stairs. He was wearing silk pyjamas and a thick, padded robe, brandy tumbler in one hand. Nobody knew how to do a day off like Forget-Me-Not. It was only two in the afternoon. There was no way of telling whether he’d just got up or was just going to bed.”

Other standout characters for me were Sunday, Tussie, June and Sister Ramona. There’s also a brilliant cameo by one of the Auld Blood Ancients, the Lord of Spiders. His scene was so well written and genuinely creepy, making it one of the most memorable parts of the story for me. If Tinsley continues writing in this world he could be one of the all-time classic fantasy villains in years to come. He reminded me of Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter before he moved centre stage in The Silence of the Lambs.

Alongside the excellent character work, Tinsley has built a unique and memorable fantasy world for them to inhabit. The 1920s aesthetic works really well, fitting perfectly with Cam’s world-weary view as he tries to uncover the mystery behind a series of sudden and unexplained Auld Blood deaths. There’s also a romantic element which combines with the religious themes, as Cam has feelings for his late wife’s sister, June. Needless to say, this is a complex relationship, especially as June is in training to become a nun in the service of the Auld Church. Alongside the murder mystery elements, the question of whether or not Cam and June have a future as anything more than friends is a key part of this novel.

Fusing all these different and distinctive elements together would be a challenge for most writers, but Tinsley has pulled this off brilliantly. The Hallows is a compelling story, well-paced and full of twists and turns, leading to an exciting and unexpected conclusion which I never saw coming. With its unusual and unique use of magic, strong sense of place, intelligently explored themes and varied and memorable cast of characters, The Hallows is a fantastic story. Tinsley is a gifted writer and I think this is her best novel to date, which is high praise as I thought The Vanguard Chronicles were outstanding. The Hallows marks an evolution in her writing journey and I think readers who enjoy intelligent fantasy fiction will absolutely love this.

I received a free ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Author: Tim Hardie

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