Thursday, February 8, 2024

Microreview: The Briar Book of the Dead, by A. G. Slatter

 Witches, deadly families, and dead bodies in ample profusion 

A. G. Slatter’s books tend to run to type: supremely confident female characters wielding power of one sort or another in a richly realized world while contending with deeply deeply unhealthy family dynamics. Oh, and corpses. So many corpses. Slatter has never met a plot point that she doesn’t resolve by chucking a corpse in it. And, frankly, I am here for it.

The Briar Book of the Dead is the third full-length novel set in Slatter’s world first introduced in her collection of Sourdough stories. Each novel stands alone, exploring various elements of the magical and the mundane of these worlds, while incorporating certain common elements. This one focuses on the small, remote town of Silverton, population 2000, which has spent generations under the rule of the Briar witches. Silverton has prospered; the priests (god-hounds, a delightful term) are kept at bay, and all is well. Except that a generation of Briar witches has been lost to plague and madness, and the new generation finds that it is not straightforward to step into their forbears' shoes. In part that may be because the incoming steward, Ellie Briar, is not, herself a witch. For some reason or other, the Briar magic has passed her by, and she must carry out her responsibilities with no other power than mundane competence. Or perhaps it is that Ellie's cousin Audra, the new Briar Witch, is too reliant on her magic and neglectful of her mundane dutues. Or perhaps it is that there is a string of disappearances and sudden deaths which, coming hard on the heels of the sudden demise of the previous Briar Witch, looks much too suspicious to be a coincidence. And then the ghosts are returning, for the first time in 300 years.

 Like much of Slatter’s work, the female characters in this book are drawing on a rich, dark history to inform their actions. The history of the Briar witches is conveyed through family tales which are also folktales. There was, and there was not is a formula that introduces the tale of a young woman who wore a red dress and danced at her husband’s funeral; of a woman who makes a deal with Lady Death for the life of her child; of the three founders of Silverton who were once maybe bears. 

 These are not all happy stories. Many are grim and sad, and resonate with unfolding events in Silverton that are tied, in one way or another, to the accession of the newest generation of Briars. The dead Briars are as vital to the story as the current living ones--in memory; in legacy; or (because remember, ghosts) in direct revenance. Next to Ellie and her cousins Audra, Nia, and Eira, we learn about their mothers and ancestors: Gilly, Hebe, Maud, and others. Generations and generations of Briar witches, whose rule has become the defining feature of Silverton, play vital roles in this story.

 Beyond the family links between the Briar witches past and present, the events in these stories mirror current events in ways that go beyond metaphorical narrative devices. They can be quite literal. The original, ancestral Briar Witch took control of Silverton after a deadly plague left it floundering, paralleling the current Briar Witches, whose elders were almost all killed in a second plague some years before the start of the book. This is the most direct parallel, but it is not the only one, and it is not the only one that results in a body count.

Speaking of body counts: I mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating. The death toll in this book is staggering. There are so many dead bodies. There are dead babies, dead grandmothers, dead mothers, dead cousins, dead aunts, dead god-hounds, dead townspeople, dead lovers. Some come back as ghosts; some as less savoury haunts; and all must be sent on their way. Vast swathes of the residents of Silverton fall to Slatter’s merciless pen, until I found myself flipping back to check the  population again, wondering if the town could absorb this degree of depopulation.

I don’t want to come across as bloodthirsty, but I must say that I find Slatter’s willingness to bump off characters wherever the plot needs a little juicing up to be quite refreshing.  Actions have consequences, in her world. If two people are at odds in a Slatter book, odds are one of them is going to end up dead. If you find yourself saying about someone, ‘sounds fishy—don’t trust her!’ in a Slatter book, chances are the fishy one has blood on her hands. If you find yourself thinking, ‘he seems nice!’, then you’re in for a disillusionment, because he’s got blood on his hands too. There are a lot of bloody hands. It works for me.

Now, that being said, I’m not fully sure that the plot of this book is as successful as other Slatter stories. The world; the respect given to logistical competence; the character dynamics of dysfunctional families—all the more deadly when those families have both temporal and magical power---all of these are terrific. But I still found myself getting a little bit restless as the book progressed. I didn't quite have a sense of what the plot actually was. There are hints at mysteries but they're never foregrounded enough to drive the plot; and indeed I had guessed who was behind the deaths and disappearances early enough that the lack of development made me feel as if things were dragging. Possibly Slatter felt this too; possibly that’s why there were so many corpses. But even their ready profusion couldn’t quite fix the pacing problems in this otherwise vibey, moody, effective tale.



Nerd coefficient: 7/10: an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws


  • Witches
  • Unhealthy family dynamics
  • Corpses. So many corpses
  • Ghosts

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at


Slatter, A.G. The Briar Book of the Dead [Titan Books 2024]