Aaaaaaaaaand, we’re back!! Yes, Wifi is connected, the big computer has been set up and I am once again able to communicate with you in more than short, texty bursts. To celebrate, I am bringing to you a special feature on a very unusual and beguiling fantasy trilogy – the Nightfall Gardens series by indie author Allen Houston. And it has a gargoyle in it. Bonus!
Now, I was contacted by Mr Houston a little while back asking if I would review the first book in the series, Nightfall Gardens, with a view to maybe reading and reviewing the remaining books later on. It was one of those unexpected moments that made me grin a little bit because, you see, I had already hunted down, bought, read, enjoyed and reviewed Nightfall Gardens back in April, 2014 on Goodreads, but hadn’t featured it on the blog. So of course, I jumped at the chance to review the next two books in the series, thereby reducing my mountainous TBR pile by two.
So now my friends, you will be treated to a review of a whole series! This doesn’t often happen for this blog….in fact, in never happens because I generally make it a rule not to review subsequent books in a series on here if I’ve already reviewed the first (although I will be making a second exception to this rule in the next few weeks – stay tuned!).
On this momentously unusual occasion then, allow me to introduce to you the maverick, mould-breaking fantasy world to which Nightfall Gardens belongs. Here’s the blurb for book one from Goodreads:
Vain Lily Blackwood and her shy brother Silas wonder if their family will ever settle in one place long enough to lead a normal life. When a mysterious stranger arrives claiming to be their uncle, they discover their parents have been hiding a secret that turns their world upside down.
The two are kidnapped to Nightfall Gardens, the family’s ancestral home, a place shrouded in ancient mystery, where they meet their dying grandmother and learn of an age-old curse placed on Blackwood females.
Lily must take over as protector of the house and three haunted gardens that hold mythical beasts, fairy-tale nightmares and far worse. If she doesn’t, the evil trapped there will be unleashed and bring on a new dark age.
While she deals with malevolent ghosts inside the house, Silas is put to work in the gardens, where one wrong step means death.
Along the way, they search to unlock the secrets of the house and to stop the creatures in the gardens before time runs out and the world is destroyed.
Now as it’s been nearly a year since I read this book, I’m going to share with you my original Goodreads review as it is probably a more accurate representation of my thoughts about the book than anything I could dredge up now. So this is what I thought:
Ten Second Synopsis:
Lily and Silas are taken against their will to Nightfall Gardens, their ancestral home in a void between our world and the next, and repository of all ickiness.
It is nice to find a YA horror/paranormal/fantasy sort of a book with an original premise and setting. Nightfall Gardens (the book) was as creepy as all the reviews I read promised it would be. In fact, Nightfall Gardens (the house and grounds) was almost too depressing and hopeless for my liking. The section in which Silas and Arfast come upon the creatures from the White Garden having a raucous party reminded me strongly of the scene of Aslan’s sacrifice in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – it had that sense of the despair associated with the triumph of evil and the knowledge that hideous things are now inescapable. Essentially, it had a real sense of “things are going to get worse before they get…well, even worserer than that!”
I would have liked to see a bit of humour or something to flesh the child characters out a bit as I did feel that the oppressive atmosphere was too much at times, but that’s just my preference.The servants in the house – Polly and Ozy, and Ursula, the ever-cheerful Glumpog maid – were a highlight and I could just see them being brought to life in a Henson-esque movie masterpiece.
Overall this is an original and engaging read for those who like a dark twist on their fantasy books.
But if I thought Nightfall Gardens was both original and engaging (and I did, because I gave it four stars), then I was about to be drawn ever-deeper into the tangled world that Houston has created in book two – The Shadow Garden. Here’s the synopsis, again from Goodreads:
Precocious Lily Blackwood carries a responsibility far greater than other people. As the last female Blackwood, she must keep the evils in Pandora’s Box from destroying the world.
With the help of her younger brother Silas, the dusk riders and her best friend Cassandra, she must protect Nightfall Gardens and ensure that the fairy-tale monsters, old gods and deathly shades stay separated from humanity.
But now, the creatures bound to the Gardens are gaining strength and threatening to break loose. Bemisch, a malevolent witch, has escaped into the mist land to join forces with Eldritch, a powerful nature god. The mysterious Smiling Ladies hold the key to a dark secret from the Blackwood family’s past, and something once again roams the halls of the manor, trying to kill Lily.
Worse yet, her fourteenth birthday is approaching and with it a dangerous rite of passage. Lily must enter the Shadow Garden, home of all that is nightmarish, and come face to face with her most terrifying threat yet.
First let me say – that is an awesome cover. Because I read the second two books on the Kindle, I never really paid attention to their covers (or blurbs) and just jumped on in. But this, that, is an absolute ripper and gives you a pretty good representation of just how creepy and disturbing some of Houston’s creations are. Those delightful maidens on the cover are the Smiling Ladies, three mightily icky sisters who mysteriously appear at every moment of major human suffering.
This book was again divided into chapters alternating in viewpoint between Lily, as she attempts to figure out how to survive her rite of passage in the Shadow Garden, and Silas, as he and his dusk rider friends become entangled in a deadly mission to rescue some villagers from the evil deity Eldritch and his witch Bemisch. I really enjoyed the alternating viewpoints because there was so much action and intrigue in this helping that it was good to have a break every chapter and jump between the various dangers being faced by the siblings.
The Shadow Garden moved a lot more quickly than Nightfall Gardens and I was far more engaged emotionally with the characters in this offering. We get to find out a lot more about other minor characters also, with some focus being placed on Cassandra, Jonquil, Villon and others which was a nice expansion to the main event.
My favourite part of this story was Lily’s trial in the Shadow Garden itself (and an unexpected meeting with one of Polly’s relations!). The narrative at this point reminded me so strongly of the sacrifice of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as Houston describes all the vile and vicious and just plain bizarre creatures that inhabit the part of Nightfall Gardens that is home to the incarnation of human nightmares.
This was my favourite of the three books and a real step up for Houston in terms of the tightness and pacing of the plot.
Now, onto the finale! The Labyrinth rounds out the trilogy and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Time is running out for Lily and Silas Blackwood in their hunt to destroy Pandora’s Box before the beings of Nightfall Gardens unleash its evil upon an unsuspecting world.
Loyalties will be tested and friends will make the ultimate sacrifice as the two face off against an army of horrors that live in the Gardens.
At the center of it all stands the Labyrinth, a maze haunted by dying gods and startling secrets that Lily must navigate to find Pandora’s Box. But will she be too late?
Book three really does pick up exactly where the last book finished and once again plunges straight into the action. This is probably the most anomalous of the three books as in it we get to journey into the Labyrinth, the home of all the lost, almost-forgotten and mostly ancient deities that are trapped, waiting for a chance to re-exert their power over humans in the real world. This section of the story still had the menace of the rest of the action (especially when the Smiling Ladies decide to make an appearance) but also lent a sense of otherworldliness and hope to the pervading sense of anticipated loss that coloured the first two books.
The book has the classic “building up to the final battle” atmosphere throughout, but we are also treated to some new (and unexpectedly jocular) characters and a little bit of romance in the air for Ursula, the Glumpog maid who spreads despair (unintentionally) wherever she goes. Ursula ended up being one of my favourite characters of the series, mainly because of the comic relief that she tends to provide whenever she’s in a scene.
The thing I appreciated most about this book was the fact that the final battle and resolution had all the feeling and action expected of the climax of a fantasy trilogy, without the blow-by-blow descriptions of the final fights that are so characteristic of this genre, and which I tend to find rather tedious. I was very grateful to the author for giving us the meat of the resolution without all the tiresome chewing of gristle that just draws out the ending for no discernible benefit to the telling.
My thoughts on the series in a nutshell?
By the time I left Nightfall Gardens I had garnered a deep respect for Houston’s abilities as a storyteller, but more so for his incredible commitment to the world he has built. The construction and population of Nightfall Gardens is vastly imaginative, undisputedly arresting and something that will no doubt be greatly appreciated and devoured with relish by those hoping to discover a fantasy tale that touches on the classic themes of the genre in a downright refreshing environment.
I was so pleased that Allen approached me to review the rest of this series, because otherwise those books might have sat on my TBR list forevermore, with me thinking that they would be much the same as the first. This is one of those rare (almost endangered, in fact) beasts – a series that gets better book by book.
It also makes me wonder why on earth books of this quality, with such interesting takes on a familiar genre aren’t picked up by the big publishers. It’s one of those times that I am super-thankful for indie authors.
Until next time,