Written by: Antonija Mežnarić
While browsing upcoming 2021 titles, one particular stood up to me with its cover and tags. As soon as I saw the word striga in the description, I knew this was something I wanted to read. I’m a simple girl like that. Jokes aside, as a Croatian author who uses Croatian folklore as an inspiration, which is, by proxy, a subgroup of Slavic folklore, I was really interested to see how other writers might approach a creature that I quite like from our shared mythology. Especially since there are differences between different Slavic countries, and while I know a lot about the Croatian versions, I have no idea how strigas are represented in, say, Polish stories (the author Gabriela Houston was born and raised in Poland). So it was a no brainer for me to request this book and, thankfully, I managed to get it from the publisher, Angry Robot, via NetGalley. One note: in this review, I’m using the spelling striga, instead of štriga or shtriga, how I would usually write, because that’s the way it’s spelled in the book.
The Second Bell is a fantasy story about a young striga and her exiled mother, living and surviving in the harsh conditions of an isolated mountain village. Strigas, who are born with two hearts and a shadow they have trouble controlling, are demonised among humans and seen as blood-drinking monsters. When Miriat gives birth to a baby girl with twin heartbeats, she takes on the banishment from her human village, and goes with her daughter, Salka, to live in a nearby striga village.
The plot is relatively easy to follow and domestic in its scope. It’s really a survival and a coming of age story in one. Miriat struggles with her position as a human in a striga village, someone who was forced to leave her family and home, as well as known societal roles and norms, for a completely new life among people who are mostly tolerating her, but who don’t really view her as one of them. Her nineteen-year-old daughter Salka, on the other hand, struggles with her identity and sense of self, as a teenager who is constantly told that she’s just one wrong step away from becoming a full-blown monster. While Miriat dedicates her life to keeping Salka safe, Salka is searching for understanding of herself and her powers, in a way which often clashes with her mother’s plans.
However, this is also a story about two opposing villages, and their tension comes from deep-seated generational prejudice. A story about how much self harm a community can make when policing themselves. Which was for me, personally, the scariest part—not necessarily what the humans were ready to do to strigas because they don’t see them as people; but what the strigas were ready to do to themselves out of fear. It’s a story about dehumanization and the nature of monsters. It takes the old tropes of evil strigas and reimagines them, giving a more modern reading out of them.
And, mostly, I enjoyed it. I love narratives that take known monsters from old stories, folk tales and such and give a new interpretation to their potential monstrosity. I immensely enjoyed the way striga powers were presented in The Second Bell, and I need to do research to see how much of it is based on folklore and how much is the author’s invention (because, as I mentioned before, it’s much different than the Croatian version of strigas). The detailed descriptions of a life in the mountains were also full of interesting tidbits, with the miniscule approach to village life, hunting, cattle herding, wool spinning and survival on your own in the winter woods. I also liked most of the characters, especially Miriat and Salka. Miriat’s introduction was just perfect and the whole first chapter had a strong opening that hooked me into the story.
But—we’re coming to the but section now—the novel has some problems in pacing and structure. It starts at a fast pace—a lot of things happen to a lot of characters and narration jumps between them, showing us different perspectives. Then it slows down to an almost crawl, where our main characters get stuck. Salka, quite literally, has nothing to do at some point. Which was frustrating because, up until that moment, she went through some important self discoveries and had internal struggles, only for all that to be erased by a McGuffin. Then, nearing the end, pacing picks up again, and it’s a rush to the end. There is also a problem of too many characters having a point of view, but not as good characterization among all of them. They were mostly there to move the plot along because Salka, most of the time, was a passive protagonist, and their characterization suffered for it. The biggest offender for me, personally, was Kalina, who functioned as Salka’s foil. I think that the author had some interesting ideas when it came to her character, but didn’t explore it enough. There was just too little room for her character inside the story which was mostly about Salka.
Because of these problems, the ending wasn’t as powerful for me as I believe it was intended to be. I felt like some of the conclusions were too convenient, some good and interesting issues resolved too easily. While there were satisfactory payoffs, it was still superficial at some parts. Mostly everything concerning the McGuffin was really badly handled. I truly believe that, if Salka weren’t as passive, much of these problems might’ve been avoided.
That said, when the story picks up again, it gets really engaging and I had no problems staying up until 1 AM to finish it. All in all, a solid debut novel with an interesting twist to strigas. I’m glad that I gave it a chance, and I’m definitely ready to read something else from Gabriela Houston, especially if she continues delivering Slavic inspired fantasy.
If you like fantasy based on (Slavic) folklore, domestic stories, reading about survival in harsh conditions, or cottage core, this could be novel for you.
I want to thank NetGalley and Angry Robot for a chance to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.