In Liz Williams’ wonderful fantasy, Blackthorn Winter, sequel to Comet Weather, a lot can happen in the blink of an eye. A winter landscape can turn to summer, an ancient ruin can become a mansion full of dinner party guests, an empty auditorium a maze with a charging minotaur.
For the four Fallow sisters, as well as their mother and assorted relatives and friends, life is a patchwork of different worlds and times. The sisters have learned since childhood that they are attended by star spirits, like the embodiment of Capella, who has sapphires gleaming in her hair and whose “long green gown waterfalled to the floor.” This spirit takes a particular interest in Serena, helping her with warnings and protective presences.
Just as Comet Weather began with a warning that an autumnal danger in the form of an embodied comet was on the way, so Blackthorn Winter begins with warnings. Serena, the gifted dress designer walks into her studio to find her entire new collection torn to shreds, a pterodactyl shaped demon sitting quietly on the mantelpiece.
An angel steps down from a tree that only Stella, the hip DJ, can see, takes on the shape of a girl in a hoodie and warns her of strange rumblings in the spirit world.
Bee, who maintains the ancestral country home of Mooncote, takes in a starving young girl who doesn’t speak English and whose skin is green. She is, of course, from a different world where trouble is brewing.
And the pregnant Luna, who roams the country in a van with her lover Sam, walks out to care for the horses on a visit to Mooncote and finds herself transported to a summery world where she is pursued by hunters until saved by one and tossed into a coracle which sweeps her away upstream on the Severn River into a more primitive Britain.
And so it goes. Serena’s ex-lover, Ben, is missing and much of the story revolves around a search for him, but then there are multiple searches for various people who have gone missing, all of them into other worlds.
That is the plot, such as it is, but you should not expect a tidy story line with all the loose ends pulled together. Blackthorn Winter is about a group of adventurers who quite inadvertently wind up trying to complete tasks in these parallel worlds. But they all glimpse only bits and pieces.
Life appears in fragments within the sphere of each human (or non-human) mind. At one point, Luna who is flying over the world with Sam’s grandmother (you see, they have temporarily turned into birds – not a bad thing, as it turns out), can see the lighted pathways below that are the links between worlds, “with gateways shining starbright at their crossroads.” The older woman advises Luna to let it take them, and that is about as complete a picture as anyone is allowed to see.
Bee asks her mother, Alys who is a frequent traveler along those pathways, if there is a map that shows how it’s all connected. Alys reveals that she and others have assignments to try to map the areas they have access to, but no one can see how the whole patchwork fits together.
… there is another London, alongside the London we know, and it’s like White Horse Country and the Elizabethan world that Bee and I slipped into, Dark’s world, the past, and they’re all mixed up like Bee said to me at Christmas, like patchwork. The Secret Commonwealth, she called it. Bits and scraps of other places and times.Blackthorn Winter, Kindle edition, Location 4231
(By the way, The Secret Commonwealth is a real book by Robert Kirk, a 17th Scottish minister, who recorded stories of fairies and other strange beings as told to him by people with “second sight.” It’s heavy going, and I much prefer Liz Williams’ interpretation, but clearly it provided her with a lot of interesting source material.)
Each of the four sisters gets different glimpses into the parallel worlds where dangerous events are unfolding even as everything in this world follows its normal, even humdrum course. The sisters go about their lives, worrying about lovers, feeding the horses at Mooncote, going for a walk, looking out a church window during Christmas celebrations, tending to business dealings.
They are so used to being in contact with spiritual beings that they take it almost in stride when a fragment of another world intrudes in their lives. Almost in stride, because some of these happenings are decidedly sinister. Each sister’s survival is threatened by dark forces that want to lure them into their power and wring the life out of them.
Sometimes, the most dangerous forces appear as benevolent people promising good things. But, as the wonderful and somewhat seedy character known as Ace tells it, they are not what they seem to be.
You see them in all this designer-type stuff, cloth of gold and velvet and that, but when you look out of the side of your eye they’re dressed in rags. They’re like that themselves. They’re all scraps and patches, bits of greed and lust and envy and spite. And some good things too, sometimes. But not often. They’re not supposed to have souls in the old folklore and I think that’s actually right. They’re hollow and they know it. They’re shells and they’re constantly trying to fill the lack.”Blackthorn Winter, Kindle edition, Location 5738
That strikes me as another powerful theme of Blackthorn Winter, the destructive behavior of the empty people who are always trying to fill their emptiness.
There are plenty of exciting developments in the story, threats and dangers everywhere and life or death confrontations at the climactic moments, but there is no single opposition of good and bad, no decisive triumph of one side over another.
The four sisters and their friends endure a lot, and guiding spirits help them survive. However, we never see that whole picture, that handy map of how all the parts of worlds fit together. Because this is life, after all, and life is never that tidy, especially when it consists of experiences that cross back and forth between parallel worlds and times.
But there is never a dull moment in Liz Williams’ strange world. You realize as you read the story that there will always be loose ends. Nothing is simple, and I hope that means we’ll see more of this intriguing and unforgettable world before long.