Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE is the story of what happens once Death comes calling, asks for his “Cobweb Bride,” and then leaves again after saying he will not do his job until/unless his Cobweb Bride is found. The world is thrown into chaos as animals cannot be killed for food, anything left on the vine does not ripen, and most importantly of all, people do not and cannot die. Because of the urgency of the situation — Death had best get his Cobweb Bride quickly, or people could starve but be left in an undead state, and those who truly need to die cannot — a number of women, mostly young, from the Kingdom of Lethe and its environs go in search of Death to find out if any of them could be his bride.
Persephone (Percy) Ayren, a sixteen-year-old young woman from the Kingdom of Lethe, is one of the many young women from all over Lethe who goes to find Death in order to find out if she’s Death’s bride or not . . . but as she’s the principal player in a large ensemble cast, it’s easiest to start with her. Percy is the overlooked middle sister from a rural family, and she hasn’t been treated well by her mother, Niobea (though Percy’s father loves her dearly and so do her sisters). Percy sees herself as ordinary and mostly has hidden her talents, including a rather odd one of being able to see the shadow of death as it approaches. So when Death’s call resounds throughout Lethe, she’s among the first to answer as she figures she won’t be missed.
But Lethe is not a stand-alone kingdom; no, indeed. It’s part of an altered Renaissance landscape, so the countries we know as France, Germany, etc., are still there but not necessarily in their current positions. Lethe is part and parcel of an Empire called the “Silver Court,” where the Infanta Claere Liguon has just been killed by Marquis Vlau Fiomarre of Styx (another kingdom allied with the Silver Court) due to an apparent blood feud. But because Claere cannot die — and because Claere has retained more of her essential humanity than most of the undead — she spares Vlau’s life, asking him to accompany her on her journey to find Death and see if she might be the Cobweb Bride Death’s looking for.
And because Claere is both noble in spirit and already dead, she figures she won’t be sacrificing very much to be one with Death.
Vlau, of course, goes along with Claere, and eventually they meet up with Percy and the gaggle of young women who’ve joined up with her. The reason Percy is leading this pack of young women is because of one notorious newly-dead noble, Duke Ian (“Hoarfrost”) Chidair, who tries to keep any potential Cobweb Brides away from Death for the Duke’s own spiteful reasons. Percy, the other girls with her, Vlau and Claere all go in search of Death, eluding Duke Ian and his men and searching for Death everywhere they go . . . but it will not be easy to find him.
Providing they do find him, will any of them be Death’s Cobweb Bride? And if not, what will happen to the world at large? (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least as far as the plot summary.)
I enjoyed COBWEB BRIDE very much, mostly because Ms. Nazarian’s prose, once past the first third of the novel in particular, is something to savor. (Like a fine wine, except without the calories.) Between the excellent storytelling, the haunting and elegiac descriptions, and the flawless characterization, I found COBWEB BRIDE to be one of the toughest books to put down I’ve read during 2013.
Note that COBWEB BRIDE is definitely dark fantasy, as Ms. Nazarian doesn’t shrink from the nastier problems caused by Death refusing to take anyone into his embrace. Pigs get butchered, then keep screaming in pain because they cannot die. People freeze to death, then get up and walk home, scaring everyone in sight and sometimes doing horrific things as they know they’re dead and nothing seems to matter. And the balance of power starts to slowly shift away from those who are trying hard to rule honorably in the way they’ve always done toward those who wish to find a way to use Death’s refusal to allow anyone to die until he gets his bride as a shorthand path toward nation or empire building — because there are now many things worse than death, and humanity is finding out about all of them.
But ultimately, COBWEB BRIDE is also life-affirming, too. And it’s because of those two things — and the balance between those two things (literally, life and death) — that COBWEB BRIDE is not only one of the most original fantasies I’ve ever read, but also one of the most memorable.
In other words, if you think you know the ending to Percy’s story, you’d best think again.
That being said, there’s one minor drawback to COBWEB BRIDE, which I alluded to in this review’s title: it’s quite slow to start. We see a whole lot of why Percy decides to go in search of Death, which is important and essential information . . . but it’s not conveyed at the same rate of speed as much of the rest of the novel.**
Providing you stick with this slow start, though, the rewards of COBWEB BRIDE are many.
Bottom line? Don’t miss COBWEB BRIDE. (And bring on the sequels!)
— reviewed by Barb
** Note that this one minor drawback is the sole reason COBWEB BRIDE did not receive an A-plus. (It’ll just have to settle for an A. Oh, the horror.)