The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; March 9, 2021

304 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.9 / 5 ✪ – Almost perfect!

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Angry Robot #AngryRobot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

In the mountain village of Heyne Town, there exists a tree known as the Hope Tree. Here, before they are due to give birth, women will leave blankets, food or provisions outside the village—just in case. In case their children are born as stryga.

Stryga (or strzyga or strzygón in Slavic mythology) are children born with two hearts. The first heart is their primary, human one—tying them to humanity and the path of normalcy and righteousness. The second is a much darker heart connected to a second soul, one that indulges its evil desires and preys on humanity. If a stryga were to follow the darker desires of its second heart even once, it would never be able to stop, turning this human into a dark demon. Although, in Heyne Town, all born with two hearts are considered evil and banished upon birth. Thus their parents faced a choice—to abandon their child outside the village; to dispose of them some other way; or to join their inhuman offspring in seclusion, never to set foot in the village again on pain of death.

Nineteen years ago, Miriat and her newborn Salka were exiled from Heyne Town, and taken to the remote haven where all exiled stryga live. Here they live in squalor, unable to leave and hated by the outside world. Here they are taught to control their darker nature, to never once listen to their second heart.

But Salka is young and headstrong. When she is exiled to the far off Windry Pass for a moment of weakness, she must do everything she can just to survive. But as the snow piles high and the temperature plummets, food becomes scarce and predators start to hunt humans as prey, Salka will be forced into a no-win situation: will she use her second heart to survive, or pay the ultimate price for the sake of her human soul?

By in large I really enjoyed the Second Bell. While I’d heard of strygas before, Gabriela Houston introduces a fresh take on the creature more often depicted as a monster in other media. In Slavic lore, it refers to a child born with two hearts and two souls, the second pair of which transforms it into a demon much alike a vampire. In the Witcher, a striga is a child cursed before birth. It is born a demon—a foul-smelling, heavily-muscled monster that runs about on all fours and violently attacks anything that wanders too near its lair. Houston’s take on the stryga humanizes it tremendously compared to these, as the child must only suppress the desires of its second heart in order to retain its humanity. Even so, not all parts of the legend seem to hold true. As with any other story, what is fact and what isn’t is open to interpretation. The villagers in Heyne Town fear and loathe all strigoi in equal measure. Whether or not they have ver indulged their second heart is immaterial. All are evil.

Note: I’ve been talking a lot about stryga being cursed children, born with two hearts. This is true, but not complete. While the affliction dooms from birth, strigoi will grow up like anything does. The only cure (in this book, at least) is death. Likewise, one can’t catch stryga. You’re either born one or you’re not—there’s no in-between.

The Second Bell is all about the story and its characters. Salka and Miriat share a unique relationship that should be quite relatable, and yet unlike any other. While they are obviously kin, only one is human. Her mother is Salka’s link to her humanity—by refusing to indulge her second heart, she feels closer to her mother, to her humanity, but in denying it she feels like she is cutting off a part of her own soul. The Second Bell is therefore a tale of what it means to be human. Salka is Miriat’s child and her whole world. But if her daughter were to listen to her demon heart, would she lose her humanity, the main connection she has to her mother? The Second Bell is also a tale of a mother and a daughter, and their bond.

While the world-building of this story was a bit patchwork, I understand the choice was instead to focus on the story of Salka and Miriat, the story of what it means to be human. Still, I would’ve liked to see a bit more from the world. There are some things—like the tree and the dola and more—though the entire world seems like it was built for ‘men and strygoi, but nothing more. While the story centers on the strygoi, they cannot possibly by the only legend in this land: I would’ve liked to hear about some of the others, if only just in passing. The land itself was often painted in greens and browns and white, rather than showing any real detail.

Otherwise, I really have no other notes. The story was good and thorough and made for a quick and immersive read, while still leaving lasting connotations after the book is finished. I hope to see more from the author and this world!

5 thoughts on “The Second Bell – by Gabriela Houston (Review)

  1. I know them from the Witcher – novel, game, and movie series – and always found them intriguing. Partly because they aren’t in the Western monster canon.

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  2. I’d really like to try this one. I’d heard of strygoi before though I can’t say exactly where. But I’d love to read more stories with references to Slavic myth and legend. The idea of them being born with two hearts, one human and one evil, is completely new to me. Of course it’s perfectly made to explore human psychology and how and whether we can resist any baser urges we have and what that says about us.

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