Verdict: THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS is a haunting literary fantasy filled with unique characters and told with poetic grace.
When Adam Green was a child, his parents woke up one night and walked into the bear-ridden forest, never to return. The people of Arcadia thought their strange behavior was a sign of witchcraft; some even wanted to burn young Adam and his baby sister Daisy at the stake to prevent their parents’ contagion from spreading. But cooler heads prevailed, and, as a young man, Adam thought he’d put all that behind him. Then, one day, he sees something strange in the woods: a human head speaking to him from inside a black box. Old rumors begin to resurface and soon Adam isn’t sure what to fear more: the villagers, some supernatural evil, or his own mind.
THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS, BOOK ONE: THE POLYPS OF CHRIST is that rare thing: a fantasy that introduces an entirely unique world that also reads as fully real. The novel takes place in a town called Arcadia, nestled in a peaceful valley but surrounded by woods filled with dangerous wild animals. The town’s inhabitants are descended from a group of early Puritan settlers who journeyed to the valley through the Forbidden Forest and now live a simple, isolated existence and follow a slightly more relaxed version of their ancestor’s moral code. The mix of historical and fantastical detail creates an uncanny mood that keeps you turning pages as the novel invites you to uncover its many mysteries.
THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS succeeds in part because of Eidswick’s prose. He writes with a slightly old-fashioned cadence and vocabulary that match the small town world of farmers and shopkeepers he’s created. One character, for example, is “perched on the splintery riding board of his old cart, his small body wobbling with the pocks of the trail.” The detail of his descriptions turn Arcadia into a place you can see, hear, and feel along with the characters; the unique voice of his prose gives you the impression you are reading about it specifically as these characters would tell it.
The other reason the novel works so well is that the characters themselves are so memorable. Eidswick assembles a large cast, from self-doubting, world-shy Adam to Daisy, to his fearlessly questioning younger sister, to Reverend Calvin Branch, desperate to return the town to the piousness his father inspired, to Wandabella Shrenker, the gossipy shopkeeper with a penchant for designing garish dresses and cooking mice into biscuits. Eidswick gives us glimpses into the heads of most of his characters, making the town feel truly alive with fully realized human beings. Even characters who do bad things are given a chance to explain themselves through internal monologue so that his imagined world comes across as complex and vivid as our own.
The combination of world-building, character development, and expert plotting makes for a compelling yarn, but THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS is also more than that. It’s a novel with something to say. By drawing on Puritan America for inspiration, Eidswick is able to examine both the harmful legacies the United States has inherited from that past, as well as the things of value it has cast aside. Even though it’s set in an imagined town isolated in time and space, THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS is full of lessons for the present day. After reading BOOK ONE: THE POLYPS OF CHRIST, you’ll anxiously await whatever intrigue and wisdom Eidswick has planned for BOOK TWO.
~Olivia Rosane for IndieReader