BOOK REVIEW: Hekla’s Children by James Brogden

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As a blend of fantasy, history and thriller Hekla’s Children spends chapters trying to piece together just what protagonist, ex-teacher Nathan Brookes, has spent years struggling to work out: how, while on a school field-trip, three of his four students vanished, while one returned a shadow of her old-self. When a body is found in the same woods as the mystery disappearances, the novel uncovers dark and eerie secrets that bring the ancient and the modern world into stark contrast.

‘Under a clear sky, and in a wide landscape empty of any hiding place, they have disappeared utterly.’

While the prologue begins in a fantasy world, Chapter 1 switches to a realistic setting. The rest of the novel mirrors the same shifts, blurring the line between fact and myth. The plot twists and turns, with characters propelled from one world to another with great force. It is compulsively readable; I finished the book within a couple of days. When not writing, author James Brodgen spends much time in the mountains, which I could have guessed from the beginning of the novel. The setting is described in great detail, blurring the eerie and the picturesque. Nature comes alive, participating not just as a backdrop, but as a character in the action. Brodgen is not afraid of taking risks: the book resembles a traditional tale, but the writing constantly subverts familiar elements of form.

‘Birch branches whip his face and he stumbles, falling to his knees in squelching black soil… He splashes across the stream and up the other side, tripped by heather and scratched by goose thorns…’

One of Brodgen’s major achievements in Hekla’s Children is the drawing of his characters. From Nathan Brookes, a complex and traumatised teacher, to Tara Doumani, an expert in osteoarchaeology dragged blindfolded into the crime, to Sue Vickers, Brookes’ ex-colleague and lover, who cannot escape the chains of her past, particularly in regards to Nathan. All are developed enough to be plausible. My favourite is Olivia Crawford, the one student who returns from the ancient woodland. Her character has great depth, and the moments in which Brodgen details her fractured past are poignant and relatable.

‘Liv has always been behind everyone else. Last to be picked for teams, if at all. Last to be asked to parties. If at all. Last to be fed in a family where she is the youngest behind one brother who is a junkie and another who is in prison, where Mum drinks away what’s left of the grocery budget after this month’s “boyfriend” has stolen his share. Last developmentally since infancy thanks to her foetal alcohol syndrome – it’s a special need and gives her extra time in exams, not that this helps much because what’s the point of having an extra twelve and a half minutes if you still have fuck-all to write? Everything she’s wearing or carrying has been borrowed from the school stores, after the other kids have had their pick. And now she’s at the back of the group, where she belongs.’

On the other hand, Brodgen’s wide cast of characters can, at times, work against him. For the twists in his drama follow such different stories, that characters who seemed to be protagonists often disappear for chapters at a time. Tara Doumani, for instance, has a life outside of the case, with personal and romantic interests. Sue Vickers has a complex relationship with her husband and family. Both remain underexplored. Even Crawford, although a round character, is somewhat incomplete – her backstory introduced, but not fully excavated. I want to know more. As characters slip in and out of the narrative, it is tricky to know which names are mentioned in passing, and which should be remembered.

Brodgen’s biggest risk in Hekla’s Children is to combine character and plot. So, while some of his characters remain a little underdone, he makes up for this in the curves and coils of his story. There is no one climax, and no single resolution. Instead, there is a constant tangling and untangling: your confusion might spike, but so will your curiosity.

‘The other world is, almost by definition, everything that is not the world.’

The novel is a story, in the traditional sense of the word. Brodgen demonstrates brave and original writing in his combination of character and plot. In detailing a fantasy world, Hekla’s Children explores the harsh realities of our own world, how consequential our seemingly insignificant actions can be.

James Brogden


James Brogden is the author of The Narrows, Tourmaline and The Realt. His horror and fantasy stories have appeared in anthologies and periodicals ranging from The Big Issue to the British Fantasy Society Award-winning Alchemy Press. He spent many years living in Australia, but now lives in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire with his wife and two daughters.

Hekla’s Children was published by Titan Books on 21st March 2017.

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Review by Alice Kouzmenko


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You can read Alice’s previously published short stories below:



Sketching Sunsets


black tree

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