About a week ago, I received in the mail a review copy of Detective Sol: Blood in the Redwoods. It’s an indie horror novel, and also the debut work for Joseph T. Rayburn, who gifted it to me and even signed it! And after giving it a read-through, I can definitely say that I’m already excited for the next entry! Blood in the Redwoods gives us strong characters and a moody atmosphere that made it a fun Halloween-season read.
The book opens with a girl, Anna, attacked by a horrific monster in the woods just outside her family’s home and dragged into the trees. We then cut to our main character, supernatural investigator Terrance Sol Vividean, who gets a desperate letter from her family. He visits to confirm their fears, and then races to find a way to both pinpoint the monster’s origin and protect the family as he tries to find a way to neutralize it.
One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in its characters. Our supporting cast doesn’t get bogged down with too many people, allowing us to take the time to get to know them. Our core group comes across as pretty likable, and I enjoyed reading about them not just trying to solve the plot, but also spending time together.
Detective Sol himself makes for a fun protagonist. He’s cocky, but not in an irritating or callous manner. He tries to think his way through situations and is mindful of others around him. Writing a character like that often involves a delicate balancing act. Authors can get so obsessed with making their protagonist gritty and tough that they also sap any semblance of likability and charm from the story. Rayburn avoids that here though, thank goodness, by “taking breaks.”
Put simply, the characters don’t focus only on the plot. One of my favorite bits was a part where Detective Sol, craving caffeine, grabs a cup of coffee from a donut shop… only to store it in his car, and then disappear inside a cafe for breakfast and another coffee. Coffee for now, coffee for later. He’s not just “Detective” Terrance Sol Vividean. He’s also Terrance, the guy who loves coffee and the guy who adores his Camaro. This applies to the other characters as well. They have space to breathe, to develop. We can connect more easily to them, which makes the horror sections stand out all the more.
Moody and Atmospheric
A horror book should be, well… horrifying. In the first chapter in Blood in the Redwoods, we get a great monster scene, and we can see just what the book’s big bad is. Let me tell you, the descriptions sent chills down my spine! However, I also really enjoyed that there were subtler scenes. People begin to be affected in adverse ways, and some of the most terrifying parts involve human characters slipping closer to insanity. The book’s best scares come from both the horrifying monster, and from the humans caught up in a web that Detective Sol desperately tries to cut through. Altogether it creates a moody atmosphere that leaves the reader feeling uneasy in the best way possible. At one point I had to put the book down because it got more than I could bear!
Very important though, and related to my previous section, is that the terror is not constant. It ebbs and flows naturally. Horror can wear down an audience quickly, and needs to be used sparingly and wisely. Pure fear burns out after a while, and Blood in the Redwoods mixes in happiness, sadness, and intrigue to keep us refreshed and ready for more later on. While I had to put it down for a scare… I picked up a minute later to keep reading on!
Focusing the Plot
As another note, I do appreciate that the plot diverges from the usual “Identify the monster” kind of story. Detective Sol very early on manages to identify the creature as a wendigo. That’s important because, in the first chapter, the reader already gets to see the creature. We then get to focus on how the creature affects the family, and more intricate issues like “How do we deal with it?” and “How did it get here?” which are more interesting. Time is not wasted on something the reader already knows.
Of course, in any review, I always try to offer critiques. I don’t do it out of meanness, I do it out of a hope to not only help others improve their craft, and for my own learning.
For one, I do wish there had been more worldbuilding. At first, I didn’t realize that the book took place on Earth! While I did realize it before too long, for a while I felt confused about the setting. Similarly, I wish we had more explanation for the world’s mythology. Are supernatural creatures accepted as real, or are they considered make-believe by most? What are the “rules” of a wendigo — how does one form? I feel like these answers could make the mystery even more compelling.
Speaking of the mystery, I feel it could be heightened by limiting the point of view. While the story usually comes from Detective Sol’s POV, it often goes to secondary characters. Sometimes this works well — one of my favorite scary scenes had a supporting character’s viewpoint. That scene provided more complications for the plot as well. However, another scene ended up popping a theory I had. It wasn’t because of a revelation… but because it gave me thoughts from a secondary character I had suspected. Hearing those internal thoughts made me realize “Oh, guess that’s not the culprit.” Keeping the POV more limited can help limit information from the readers in the right ways, and could help elevate the mystery even more in future installments.
Finally, and as much as I hate to be that guy, I spotted a fair amount of slip-ups with grammar and spelling. Of course, given that it’s an independently published work I give a bit more leeway, and it’s never story-breaking or incomprehensible. At times it is distracting though.
Despite the rough edges, Blood in the Redwoods is still a great debut novel. It creates a strong atmosphere and offered me a character that I’m excited to read more about. If you’re looking for a moody read for Halloween, you can find Detective Sol: Blood in the Redwoods right now on Amazon, and you can be certain I’ll be waiting in anticipation for Joseph Rayburn’s next novel.
Have you read Detective Sol: Blood in the Redwoods? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!