Back in ancient times (2013), the American television network Fox released a new adaptation of Washington Irving’s nineteenth-century classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Set in contemporary New York State, the show updated the story for a modern audience and featured a diverse cast headed by Black American actor Nicole Beharie in the role of Lieutenant Abigail “Abbie” Mills and White Englishman Tom Mison as the displaced time traveller Ichabod Crane.
As someone who watched the show’s initial seasons when they first aired, it’s hard to overstate the impact that Beharie’s casting (and her exceptional portrayal of Abbie) had on SFF fandom at the time. It seemed in 2013 that networks were at last awaking to the well of talent they’d been deliberately ignoring by passing over POC and other marginalized people for notable roles. Women in general were increasingly fronting popular SFF shows (True Blood, Game of Thrones and Orphan Black spring immediately to mind), and it seemed the public was starting to react to pushes on the part of marginalized people to pay attention to issues of whitewashing and queerbaiting in popular media.
While it’s been years since I’ve seen the show, I recall Beharie and Mison’s onscreen chemistry being electric—it was their will-they-won’t-they relationship that tided the audience along, all wrapped in a nicely spooky package that felt both very at home, yet still unique, amidst network television’s other supernatural and mystery offerings.
In 2016, however, that all came to a close when Beharie’s Abbie was killed off in a stunning upset for fans (Mison’s Ichabod would continue to head Sleepy Hollow until the show’s cancellation in 2017). Though by 2016 I was no longer watching the show, I remember my shock at the news—Abbie had been the beating heart of Sleepy Hollow from its inception, and how was Abbie’s Ichabod to carry on without her? Part of the reason why I hadn’t kept up with Sleepy Hollow had been the show’s mistreatment of the character who was so obviously its star, as Abbie was shoved to the side in season 2’s storylines. The reasons for this are now clear. Later, Beharie would reveal in an interview that her exit from the show was anything but positive, citing mistreatment on set due both to racism and a chronic illness that she developed over the course of her tenure at Fox. In contrast, Mison, who fell ill at the same time, was treated with patience and allowed to pause filming while he recovered.
I mention all this not at random, nor even because Jasper Hyde’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” retelling, Splinter, features a Black female lead, but because Hyde’s work is an explicit reaction to the Sleepy Hollow Fox series, providing its own “Abbie” an ending more worthy of her depth of character and the passion Beharie awoke in the audience.
Nostalgic fans not only of Sleepy Hollow, but of early 2010s supernatural and mystery TV will find much to love in Splinter. Hyde’s Sleepy Hollow (the town rather than the title) is just as atmospheric as you’d want from an adaptation of the Irving classic. The weight of the town’s history is as thick as the mood-setting fog that rolls off the page, and Hyde’s familiarity with the history of the story’s adaptations lends Splinter a richness that rewards longtime Headless Horseman fans while providing the world Hyde created that ever-elusive “lived-in” quality that so many writers aim for but don’t achieve. As a longtime fan* of Tim Burton’s 1999 Sleepy Hollow, I was pleased to see references to that work, and there are Easter eggs aplenty for the eagle-eyed reader. Rather than being a pastiche of these earlier works, however, Splinter very much carves its own path.
To claim Splinter is simply a fix-it fic of Sleepy Hollow would be a great disservice to Hyde’s creativity and the themes and motifs they bring fresh to the narrative. While Hyde gives a nod to Abbie by making their protagonist, Drusilla van Tassel, a police employee, Drusilla is a medical examiner rather than a lieutenant, and Ichabod is no time-travelling nineteenth-century gentleman, but Drusilla’s mixed-race high school sweetheart who broke her heart. There’s also a queer slant to the work, with minor queer side characters appearing throughout.
Part romance, part paranormal mystery, Splinter is probably best classified as an urban fantasy and should appeal most to fans of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books and the work of Kelley Armstrong. The novel follows Drusilla’s investigation into a series of ominous decapitations in her small hometown—murders that turn out to be anything but random when Drusilla realizes the culprit is picking off old friends of her sister, Katrina. As the hunt for the murderer turns personal, it becomes clear there is a supernatural element to the crimes, and that in order to solve the mystery Drusilla will have to make peace with the man who broke her heart all those years ago, all while uncovering long-buried family secrets and attempting to protect her wealthy and slightly snobbish sister from the Horseman’s wrath.
Splinter is a fast-paced read and is by and large well-edited and well-written with only some minor tense issues in its opening chapters. I was easily pulled along and Drusilla was a compelling and likeable hero to follow. If the novel falters anywhere, it’s through its pacing and length. A short book, Splinter throws quite a lot of supernatural worldbuilding at the reader in its final third and the mystery could have used a little more room to breathe for the narrative’s final revelations (as well as the development of its central romance) to have a bigger impact on the reader. In general, the story felt like it was in a bit of a rush, when just a few pauses to let the mystery truly sink its teeth in would have enriched the story and allowed the reader to feel as though they were uncovering Sleepy Hollow’s historical and contemporary puzzles alongside Drusilla and her friends.
While romance by no means dominates Splinter (the novel is certainly not a Paranormal Romance, despite nods to popular genre tropes), Drusilla and Ichabod’s relationship is likely one that will split audiences. Without divulging spoilers, when the reason for their high school breakup is revealed, Ichabod’s earlier treatment of Drusilla is shown to have been particularly cruel. While this didn’t stop me enjoying the book, it did mean the couple lacked some of the charm that genre Romance fans coming to the work might be seeking or expecting. That said, one of Splinter’s highlights was a spectacularly horny sex scene that could kick the teeth out of any network TV show’s PG-13 material. It was a welcome element to the story that helped develop Drusilla as a mature and sexually confident person.
Overall, I would recommend Splinter to Urban Fantasy readers looking for something fresh and fast-paced and who don’t mind growing alongside a clearly talented writer as they develop their craft. With a clear set-up for at least one sequel at the novel’s end, there’s plenty of room for Hyde to develop the lore a little more deeply and patiently in later volumes and I for one won’t at all mind joining Drusilla on any future adventures.
*as a teenager I obsessively rented the VHS every day and could quote the entire movie (and often did, to my friends’ displeasure) verbatim.
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