& Review: The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones. Fiction. Publisher: Mulholland Books.

The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones. Fiction. Publisher: Mulholland Books.

The Book Itself: I love the concept: textured paper, string “binding” the cover of the novel, so it seems like the book in your hands is one of the string diaries themselves. The snake stamp-thing is a little weird, but I guess, in light of the slippery antagonist, it’s a little indicative.

My Review: The String Diaries opens with Hannah frantically driving through the night–her daughter asleep in the back, her husband bleeding out in the seat beside her. In the trunk of the car rests a cache of diaries dating back 200 years, tied and retied with strings through generations. The diaries carry the rules for survival that have been handed down from mother to daughter since the 19th century. But how can Hannah escape an enemy with the ability to look and sound like the people she loves?
Stephen Lloyd Jones’s debut novel is a sweeping thriller that extends from the present day, to Oxford in the 1970s, to Hungary at the turn of the 19th century, all tracing back to a man from an ancient royal family with a consuming passion–a boy who can change his shape, insert himself into the intimate lives of his victims, and destroy them.
If Hannah fails to end the chase now, her daughter is next in line. Only Hannah can decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to finally put a centuries-old curse to rest.

Certainly a suspenseful read. From the first scene alone — which the author says, in the reading guide at the end of the book, was the first scene he ever thought of in creating this story — the action ramps up so that you have to read another chapter. There are three main narratives: Hannah trying to keep her husband safe after a violent altercation in the present day, her father meeting her mother and the introduction to this family’s constant flight from a deadly villain, and a narrative told from the villain himself, part of an old species whose Hungarian name translates into “Long Lives,” who can transform himself into anyone.

What I liked best about this story was probably the worst thing about it. Meaning that I thought the development of that villain was masterful. You get introduced to the mind, to the past and familial pressures and desires and thoughts of this guy before he becomes what is essentially a deeply psychopathic serial killer. He rapidly dissolves from there, until at one point, right on the heels of a chapter in which you see how he…dispatches on of his victims, that I actually physically cringed. The next chapter was from his perspective, and after all that, I didn’t want anything to do with him! He is evil, manipulative, and well written to the point that he tries to convince you that he has the right of it…and you almost believe him. Once. Then he’s crazy again and you see him for the sadistic madman that he is.

Not so good things: just as a note, DO NOT read the description of the second book (Written in the Blood), coming out in May. Lots of spoilers in just the summary, which I just happened to read before I’d finished up the last 5o pages or so.

There are just one or two too many characters to really flesh them all out. Hannah meets a couple of people while in hiding, none of whom seem to trust each other, and by the novel’s closing scenes, everything and everybody is in an uproar. And the novel’s central conceit: a villain who can look like anyone, makes the story hard to trace at points. Is this really Sebastian? Leah? Gabriel? Or is it Jakab, our evil mastermind?

At some points, the vocabulary tripped me up. The legend of the “Long Lives” is fictional. It has some Hungarian roots, but their real name, hosszú életek, is made up. And they are almost never called Long Lives, probably because that would be a little clumsy. But hosszú életek isn’t any neater. How do I even pronounce it? My eyes would glide over it every time is popped up. That, and the intricacies of the hosszú életek hierarchy:  Merénylo, végzet, lélekfeltárás, Eleni, etc. They are important concepts, repeated many times. It just irked me that I didn’t know how to actually say them (and lélekfeltárás just looks absurd).

Overall, it’s suspenseful, certainly heartbreaking at more than one point, and complex. If you’re not one for gore, I wouldn’t recommend this one. There are some nasty scenes, mostly from Jakab’s point of view, that aren’t for the weak of stomach. But it’s a well written book, and once Written in the Blood comes out, I might just have to read it.

My Grade: B

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