Face Off! “The Dark Chorus” by Ashley Meggitt and “The Sadeiest” by Austrian Spencer

I read these two books back-to-back by accident rather than design. I’m glad of the confluence because it pointed up a stark similarity in their themes that was simply impossible to ignore.  

Both have a take on the release of souls. At the start of The Dark Chorus (TDC), the concept is introduced through the character of a young boy who, unable to let his dying mother ‘go’, blames himself for the fact that, because of his selfishness, her soul could not be freed. Instead it joined the ranks of the dark chorus comprising of other trapped souls. He hears their chaotic calls and they haunt him—tear at his own soul—so he spends his time collecting them before he can eventually liberate them. It reduces the noise while he searches for the lost essence of his mother.

The Sadeiest (TS), also features a chorus, though this one is hosted by the character of Death who himself is haunted within by the voices of his predecessors all vying for attention. It is a management issue. And it isn’t the first. There are hosts of souls to be saved, wrested from the dying by Sadeiests, so called because separating a soul unwilling to depart necessitates the infliction of terrible suffering.

In general and, I suppose, theological terms, the idea of ‘soul’ comes with baggage. It codifies ideas about sin, guilt, redemption, pain and suffering and both novels contain all these elements in spades. Neither book could be described as religious since ‘soul’ is an ancient concept predating the limited confines of western theology, but in both novels a moral universe is at play and recognisable tropes employed, where redemption has to be earned and sins paid for. It’s a mythical system of natural justice. In TDC, this rationalises the actions of the protags; in TS, Sadeiests are pressed into service, the pain they go through to save each soul pays off their moral debt before they too can eventually be freed.

What differs between the two novels is their approach. TDC offers a deeply personal perspective of the young boy. Written in first person POV, (whispers: I normally avoid first person narratives; the writer has to be pretty masterful to avoid its pitfalls), Meggitt has managed an incredible achievement in his portrayal. The character is both innocent yet experienced, curious yet centred. Single-mindedly calm, he’s honest and unafraid – totally focused on his purpose. It’s these qualities that draws the other central characters—and the reader—to him. The POV offers the reader an intensely personal relationship with the character, and the narrative keeps it simple, his voice pure. Such composure is unusual in one so young—preternatural—and his friends unquestioningly abide by his needs and instructions as they enact his brutal ceremonies, the source of much of the horror in the book.

The strength of the boy and his purpose drives the plot, introducing other themes along the way: domestic violence; paedophilia; inequality; old age. It’s a really moving book and as I look back on it writing this, my overarching feeling is one of melancholy; difficult to pin down why. I think it’s to do with the boy’s obvious yearning for the mother he lost and regret (shame?) for his need to hold on to her. There’s such poignancy in that. And Meggitt does something else. He juxtaposes some of the most horrific moments with the boy’s love of tea … and fruit. I love the part where Makka is threatening Vee’s father. The chap’s bellowing away with forks being thrust in front of his face and the boy tells us: “I realise I am still holding the banana. I start to peel it. I am not sure if I really like bananas, but while I wait, I think I will give them another go.” His love of tea does the same thing. It may be a piss-take on how we English like the beverage so much as a panacea for all stresses—maybe not—but when all around him is in chaos, when he asks for a cup, it seems to ground us further into the implacable purpose of the boy.

Meggitt does widen the scope into his own mythos of Arta, and I wonder if this will be revisited in a second novel. I don’t want to go too far into this for the sake of spoiling, I just wondered, if TDC is to stand alone, whether we needed it. I liked the Boy as Enigma.

I loved it. 

I didn’t love TS in quite the same way, because this book appealed to my head rather than my heart. A beast of quite a different order, it’s large scale: mythic, apocalyptic, traumatic, – a positive cornucopia of ics.

Sort of like the boy in TDC, Sadeiests are the agents of Death, charged with the purpose of freeing souls from their dying bodies. They enter the dying and share their pain and suffering. It is a brutal and horrific process. Time and again bodies morph, bones break, lungs drown: it is inexorable. Full disclosure? At times, for me, too inexorable, dulling the horror so it became more assertive rather than felt. Though wonderfully complex, there was much that had to be explained, usually through the agency of Henreich in his initiation of sadeiest apprentice Williams, and this occasionally pulled me out of the narrative. Hard to see how it could be done otherwise, however, since there are high concepts at play, and we have to understand Spencer’s vision as he subverts and re-imagines the biblical and cultural myths with which we are familiar.     

TS was originally conceived as a graphic novel. I know there were issues with this but can’t help hoping some day to see it as such. Graphic novels unfold layers in ways that don’t trap an author in a linear form from which this particular narrative seemed to want to escape. Maybe I’ve been seduced into this idea by the illustrations, if so, no regrets, they’re wonderful too.

These, though, are merely my own personal meandering reflections. Make no mistake, TS is an exceptional novel, beautifully and intelligently written, containing much humanity, camaraderie and humour. The standout cameo for me was Greta.

So … an amazing achievement and one which I hope will be universally recognised. Before diving in, you should read the ‘About the Author’ section before the foreword. Was TS A traumatic vision born of a traumatic event?

Jesus, that truck, Austrian … that truck …

Oblivio salvationem Angelis opperitur

Oblivion awaits the Angel’s salvation

The Boy can see lost souls.

He has never questioned the fact that he can see them. He thinks of them as the Dark Chorus. When he sets out to restore the soul of his dead mother it becomes clear that his ability comes from within him. It is a force that he cannot ignore – the last shard of the shattered soul of an angel.

To be restored to the kingdom of light, the shard must be cleansed of the evil that infects it – but this requires the corrupt souls of the living!

With the help from Makka, a psychotically violent young man full of hate, and Vee, an abused young woman full of pain, the Boy begins to kill.

Psychiatrist Dr Eve Rhodes is seconded to assist the police investigation into the Boy’s apparently random ritualistic killings. As the investigation gathers pace, a pattern emerges. When Eve pulls at the thread from an article in an old psychology journal, what might otherwise have seemed to her a terrible psychotic delusion now feels all too real…

Will the Boy succeed in restoring the angel’s soul to the light? Can Eve stop him, or will she be lost to realm of the Dark Chorus?

Death – a walking skeleton armed with a scythe, a rider of the apocalypse, it has always been assumed – is a man that brings the souls of the dead to wherever they are destined to go.

But what if we got that wrong? What if he were a ghost that, instead of moving your soul on silently after you had died, actually did the hard part for you?

Death has to die, again and again, to pay for his sins, and to free trapped souls before their bodies perish – only to replace those souls, to die for them.

A Death whose existence is a curse, where the other riders of the Apocalypse are not his allies, but his enemies.

Armed only with his morals, his memories and the advice of a child teacher, Williams, a Sadeiest, travels through the deaths of other people, on his way to becoming something greater. Something that will re-define the Grim Reaper.

Death just came to life, in time to fight for a child hunted by the other horsemen of the Apocalypse.

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