Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
The British island of Lute is blessed, beautiful, prosperous. Fair weather, good health, robust tourism, a spotless record of no war casualties in all of recorded history. But there is a cost to this prosperity, and it comes due every seventh year on the Midsummer Tithe, when the island claims seven sacrifices. “The Day,” as the locals call it, becomes a gruesome holiday, both dreaded and celebrated. Observed. No one knows who the island will choose, or how they’ll meet their fate. This is the premise of Jennifer Thorne’s contemporary dark fantasy novel Lute, released this month and available here from Tor Books. Less a modern day “Wicker Man,” Lute reads more like an installment of Final Destination set in the charming English countryside. The deaths are unpredictable and bloody, and as narrator Nina begins to understand, no one on Lute is safe from the Tithe.
An American immigrant, Nina married Lute nobility seven years ago exactly, on the last Midsummer Tithe. Now Lady Treadway, she scarcely credits the island’s macabre superstitions. But as her first Day approaches, her neighbors’ tension begins to rub off on her—and, in turn, Nina’s tension rubs off on the reader.
This is not a book to read when you are home alone with chores to do (Dare I plug in the iron? Start the stove? Better move that roller skate off the stairs…), or while your loved ones are on the road or in the air. Thorne builds the tension slowly, insidiously, utterly infectiously. You begin to feel your own minutes are numbered, merely by virtue of picking up the novel.
Parts of the story fall squarely in the horror genre: we witness the deaths alongside Nina, in all their gory detail. And part of the tale is a psychological drama, as the stress of the Day’s responsibilities wears on the residents of Lute. With anyone’s life on the line, how will the islanders react? But Lute ultimately lands as a fantasy, infused with ancient, primal magic, fate entwined with ordinary life. Nina’s growth into her role on the island—for the island—unfolds magically, as does the unexpected and thoroughly satisfying denouement.
Moments of profanity feel unnecessary and forced (this is Thorne’s first adult novel, after several children’s and YA titles), like a film reaching for an R-rating. Sex scenes are more deliberate, largely in keeping with the pagan traditions Thorne is tapping. Thorne’s choice of the awkward first-person present tense narration works well in this case, conjuring up an atmosphere of unreal dread. On the whole, Lute is a tense, suspenseful, scary, and satisfying read—wholeheartedly recommended. In the fall. By natural daylight (don’t risk using electricity). Sitting still. With all your loved ones within easy reach and the sharp objects locked away.
Lute is available now here at Amazon from the Tor Books imprint Nightfire.