By Pat Walsh
Published by Chicken House
ISBN 978190642715 3
Set deep in the English countryside during the icy winter of 1347, The Crowfield Curse is an original, gripping read right from the first page. The story unfolds centuries ago, but Pat Walsh's debut novel is far from being a stuffy, historical tome covered in cobwebs. The characters come alive in this tense page-turner, and the plot is full of cliffhangers.
The ancient setting isolates the action, making the story even spookier, while the closed location adds yet more to the tension Walsh cranks up. The action takes place in a cold, wintry wood and the frozen buildings of Crowfield Abbey nearby. With the eerie setting, the chills will be running down your spine even before the action starts.
William, 14, is taken in by monks at the abbey as an unpaid servant after his parents are killed in a fire. The boy's life there is a hard one and Walsh avoids false sentimentality. The monks themselves lead a poverty-stricken life in their freezing, isolated building and there is no time within the dark walls for anything other than worship and hanging onto survival.
The monks accept their lot and look on William as someone who gets in their way, a lowly servant to be used and tolerated. He has no bed of his own but sleeps in the kitchen, almost freezing to death once the meagre fire burns out. Only one monk, the deformed Brother Snail, shows him anything resembling kindness.
Walsh sets up the atmosphere of a medieval monastery, its daily life and the surrounding countryside wonderfully well. There is a proper feeling of isolation, coldness and darkness throughout the book. This is the time and the place for a shivery, credible tale to be told, and Walsh does not disappoint.
One day while out collecting wood, William comes across a tiny creature in an animal trap. He rescues it, only do dicover it is a hob, a magical woodland resident similar to an elf or a goblin. William takes the injured hob back to the abbey to be cared for by Brother Snail.
A couple of strangers arrive at the abbey. Guests are unknown here at any time of the year, so they must have come with a very particular purpose. Jacobus Bone is a leper who was once a great musician. Shadlock, his servant, is a sinister presence with a terribly scarred head. They are seeking something and soon William is caught up in an ancient mystery buried deep in the frozen earth of Crowfield Abbey.
The slow revelation of the secret is expertly handled, and Walsh's clever build-up tells us something threatening is surely hiding in the Crowfield winter. And poor William just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Crowfield is an absorbing, well-written novel that is extremely hard to fault.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com