Top critical review
Atmospheric, slow-burn horror
Reviewed in the United States on July 4, 2020
This has been one of the most anticipated horror novels of the year, so I was excited when my copy arrived and I finally had the opportunity to dig in to it. From the title and description, I expected to read a fairly classical Gothic tale, transposed to the Mexican setting. This expectation was partly fulfilled, though there's a lot more going on in this book than the established tropes of the Gothic genre.
The important thing to know about this book is that, though it is a horror novel, the horror elements are fairly understated through most of the book. It's very much a slow-burn story, allowing the reader time to gradually get to know the characters and the setting before delivering its climax. On many levels, this is effective, though I do think the pacing is a little bit off. I don't mind a slow burn of a story, but after an intriguing opening, the middle section seems to drag on a bit longer than it ought, offering tidbits of information about the horrific mystery at the novel's heart in small doses and in a way that doesn't particularly add to the story's tension. Once the stakes have been established fairly early, these revelations do enrich the reader's understanding, bit by bit, of what's really going on, but they don't seem to raise the stakes much, making the novel's middle section a bit of a slog.
The slow-burn character of the novel does finally reverse itself in the final third or so of the book, when a final set of revelations come in rapid succession, building to a true climax. In fact, these climactic revelations seem to come a bit too rapidly, once again short-changing dramatic tension in favor of bringing the plot closer to its conclusion. The novel's pacing would have been better had the revelations built more gradually to a crescendo.
Issues with pacing aside, I found it overall to be an enjoyable read. The reader will have no trouble liking or disliking the characters according to how the author means them to be viewed. While some characters are better-developed than others, they do provide an interesting ensemble. The writing style occasionally veers toward the wordy or "flowery," but always stops just short of the point at which it becomes too much so, giving the book a haunting, almost meditative sort of characteristic.
Endings in horror are often difficult to get right, because once one knows what the evil (or the "big bad") actually is, it immediately loses much of its power to terrify. Admittedly, the revelation of this novel's big bad strains the limits of the willing suspension of disbelief a bit, but it nevertheless leads to an ending that's more satisfying than those of most horror novels.
It's far from a perfect book, but it's well worth a read.