Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams

Imagine a classic, cliché fantasy beginning; now imagine it being turned upside down, inside out, twisted, altered, and finally you’re left an alien hallucination flavored with almost recognizable myths from the world over. This is a good start for realizing The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams.

Like so many of the better genre novels being written right now, The Crooked Letter starts with almost no back-story. We are thrown right into a pursuit to eventually figure out that it is a feud between two mirror-twin brothers, Hadrian and Seth, who are traveling through Europe. What is the genesis of this feud – their female traveling companion, Ellis, whom both brothers love in their own way.

Within the first 20 pages Seth is brutally murdered in front of Hadrian in mysterious circumstances. Later, Hadrian awakes in a hospital with the memory of Seth’s death. It slowly dawns on him that things are not normal and he flees the hospital and police to find the city around him abandoned, powerless, and haunted by strange creatures – the Cataclysm has begun. Not knowing who (or what) to trust, Hadrian finds a guide who turns out to be a Goddess as the world suffers the affects of the Cataclysm.

Seth’s death is only a beginning as he enters the Second Realm – an alien afterlife hinted at by the religions of the world. Confused, scared, and under attack by resident creatures, Seth is rescued by a monstrous, once-human guide. He gets a crash course on the three realms humans exist in through their lives and the Cataclysm that threatens to shatter the barriers of the realms, bringing an end existence as it is known.

Both brothers strive to set the world right and end the Cataclysm they barely understand from opposite sides of the grave, but a truer motivation is to save their love, Ellis, as they come to terms with who they are.

The Crooked Letter tells us the story of the Apocalypse, without ever describing it as such and the heart of the tale is the sibling rivalry between to twins, one dominant, as they both come to terms with self. It is as dark and gritty as a Miéville novel, as strange as Steven King, and more accessible than either.

Sean Williams’ writing style is particularly readable considering the strange, parallel worlds he takes us to. However, at times the descriptions get confused in the unfamiliar setting, leaving the reader as lost the twins. Mixed in are a few editing errors that, while minor, can be annoying.

The Crooked Letter is the first book in the series, The Books of the Cataclysm, but it stands alone quite well, with a conclusion that is satisfyingly well-done. The series will continue with The Blood Debt in October. On my 10-point rating scale, The Crooked Letter rates 7.0 – 7.5; Sean Williams is an author to watch…and read.
Related Posts: Interview with Sean Williams


Danae said...

Second thoughts on coming here and rereading this review... Seth and Hadrian are still odd names, at least, they are when they're together.

Also, for some reason brother conflicts seem very delicate, to me. They either work wonderfully or they don't work at all...

...and for some reason Brothers caught up in an afterlife and an Apocalypse sound extremely like something you'd expect in a short story...

... which means I have to get this book.

Neth said...

Hmm...well the names still don't sound odd to my 'English is my only language' ears, but your instance led me to do a quick internet search on name origins:

Gender: Masculine
Usage: History
Pronounced: HAY-dree-an [key]

From the Roman cognomen Hadrianus, which meant "from Hadria" in Latin. Hadria was a town in northern Italy (it gave its name to the Adriatic Sea). A famous bearer of the name was Publius Aelius Hadrianus, better known as Hadrian, a 2nd-century Roman emperor who built a wall across northern Britain.

SETH (1)
Gender: Masculine
Usage: Biblical, English
Other Scripts: שֵׁת (Hebrew)
Pronounced: SETH [key]

Means "placed" or "appointed" in Hebrew. In the Old Testament he was the third son of Adam and Eve, and forefather of the entire human race.

SETH (2)
Gender: Masculine
Usage: Egyptian Mythology (Hellenized)
Pronounced: SET, SAYT [key]

From Σεθως (Sethos), the Greek form of Egyptian Sutekh or Set, which possibly meant "pillar" or "dazzle". Seth was the evil Egyptian god of chaos and the desert, the slayer of Osiris. Orisis' son Horus eventually defeats Set and has him banished to the desert.

Name info from

After looking more closely at the name, they do fit into the story fairly well - I doubt that Williams pulled them out of a hat. The dual meaning of Seth - biblical/mythical father of all mankind and a mythical god of chaos is especially fitting.

Hadrian, whose origin is essentially a builder of walls, also fits nicely with the story.

The conflict between the brothers and with themselves is the heart of this story and is very well done.


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