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The Hallows by H.L.Tinsley

**I received an ARC of “The Hallows” from the author, in exchange for an honest review, which has in no way influenced that review, provided below.**

”’Don’t try singing that song. You know damned well that one follows the other. Sometimes difficult decisions must be made. We can’t help the dead. We can keep order for those left behind. The company is order.”’

Floating nuns, humans who as they transform into monsters have anatomical parts shifted all over their bodies, the Lord of Spiders (insert shiver here), and so many more weird, macabre, and fascinating elements compose the new dark, gritty, brilliant urban fantasy by the Princess of Grimdark, H.L. Tinsley, entitled “The Hallows”.

Be amazed once more by Tinsley (best known for her fantastic “Vanguard Chronicles”) as she takes you, in her novel, to a tense, complex, and utterly engaging fictional world, where the Providence Company is the dominant institution.

The company is something akin to both a huge corporate monopoly AND a religious organization.

“The Providence Company headquarters had many functions. It served as offices, laboratories, infirmary and hub of operations. If it were not for the fact they still held masses there from time to time, a person could easily forget it also operated as a house of worship as well. The room Cam entered was one of the smaller chapels. Not big enough to house an entire congregation, but somewhere people could go to speak to the Auld God between meetings.”

Apple meets the Roman Catholic Church? Not quite. We’re not talking I-phones and rosaries here. We’re talking hallow, (a magical serum than imbues the user with incredible powers) and…well, monsters. Or at least what humans would classify as monsters – known as the Auld Bloods.

“The Auld Bloods had been connected to their God since time immemorial and they had come a long way from wooden shack temples and stone circles in the mud. Yet, there was still a sense of something ancient and natural about it. The great stone Aulden tree that stood before the glass windows rose out of the floor, branches twisting into the aches and covering the ceiling. The altar of the Auld God stood before it, dwarfed by the tree, yet commanding the presence of all who sat in the pews, drawing their gaze by the manner of its holy countenance. The featureless face, many outstretched arms with wings outspread at its back. It was neither human nor monster nor anything in between.”

Humans and Auld Bloods mingle and co-exist in a very fragile society in terms of being balanced. Each have their roles and place in society. There is local human government, including law enforcement, but the Providence Company maintains the most important hegemony in the land, both traditionally, and in terms of present-day influence. Why? Most of all, because it controls the use of hallow.

“Chemicals derived from the Hallow flower used to create an organic catalyst when consumed, began a chain reaction in the body…”

Auld Bloods appear as humans nominally, but when they take hallow, their natural genetic abilities are greatly enhanced. And because of hallow, their roles in society are typically defined / predestined.

“There were limits imposed on what you could and couldn’t do as a registered user of Hallow. Still, you could take certain jobs, claim certain benefits, and live your life relatively comfortably. But that only lasted as long as your tolerance to Hallow did. For those who didn’t work for the Providence Company, life after Hallow was different. People like Dancing Jane, no longer able to take Hallow but not entitled to the benefits provided to former assessors, were offered two weeks of supported withdrawal therapy from one of the rehabilitation centres around the city. After that, you got to collect a small income from the city administration every two weeks. It wasn’t enough to survive on. So people ended up in the Red Market. Of course, the city argued that there was no law against any Auld Blood getting any job they wanted, after they had fulfilled their purpose as a Dasher, or Stout, or whatever they were. But try telling that on an employer. Mother Ashya and the sisters would provide alms and aid in the form of food packages and some medical supplies, but otherwise these were the forgotten faces of the city.”

As this quote implies, there is also illicit use of hallow. Most people crave it, it is addictive – which leads of course to addicts. There is an underground market for illegal sale, and all sorts of societal issues are brought on by the wonder elixir, both boon and bane in the story.

As such, hallow is a “…closely monitored product, solely produced and overseen by the Providence Company…”

One of the biggest challenges is that humans cannot tolerate hallow.

“Humans died when they took Hallow, yet many convinced themselves that they would be the exception to the rule.”

And while those of the Auld Blood do not die from taking Hallow, continual use eventually morphs them into something other than what they are.

“Human blood is incompatible with the mixture….Their biology is different to ours. Evolution happens fast for us. What might take humans a thousand years might take us a hundred. And some people do stop. Some people can’t.”

When the story begins, we see that the world Tinsley has fashioned is on the brink of monumental change. For the first time, an Auld Blood is about to become part of the local government.

“It had taken fifty years to get one Auld Blood close enough to the government to achieve any lasting impact. It would take another fifty before they allowed them to take those positions in greater numbers – if it happened at all. More likely, Jasper would end up a figurehead, little more than a face to the public image of the Auld Church and the Providence Company.”

But having an Auld as part of the human-led government signals even more homogenization of human and Auld than is palatable for some. An ancient, zealous order does not want integration between humans and Auld at all, and may go to great an horrible lengths to stop it from progressing further. This radical and deadly group see any steps towards Aulds becoming closer to humanity, and forsaking their Auld monster roots as sacrilege, defying the Auld God’s plan.

While others believe, “But humanity is all that separated the Auld from becoming tarrying beasts that would destroy…”

There is a lot riding on the Auld political candidate’s (Calvin Jasper) ascension. If he comes into politics, the Auld will have more access to power, money, clout.

If he doesn’t, the Auld Church (and the Providence Company), secretly in grave financial woes, will cease to exist, and the zealots will triumph and work to destroy humankind, in a new day of “Holy Reckoning”.

The main character in “The Hallows” is Camellia. His job is being an assessor for the Providence Company.

“As an assessor, you made enemies, got under people’s skin. For every person who celebrated their work, there was another who saw them as something dangerous, working both inside and outside the law. It was better people didn’t know too much about you or the place you came from. Particularly the people you cared about.”

Assessors are divided into teams which have responsibility for different sections of the city. They provide a variety of functions. At their core, in essence, assessors the chief enforcement arm for the Providence Company, ensuring hallow is properly regulated.

While there is no legal requirement to register for hallow, and some Auld Bloods fear to use it, once you start using it, you are essentially under company control. Once a registered user of hallow, if you want to stop using it, you have to de-register, so the Providence Company can monitor you.

Some of this done for more altruistic reasons, such as addiction support for former users, tracking withdrawal symptoms, assisting with weaning off hallow, etc. Some of this is done for more controversial and questionable reasons.

Camellia is a troubled soul, coping with his inner turmoil. He’s also not considered a model company employee, because of past actions.

“Once, Camellia had been convinced that Hallow could save the world – or at least their world…But the Providence Company did not want to make Hallow safe for humans. That was his heresy. That was his crime.”

Now Camellia has even bigger problems. He has feelings for a woman he probably shouldn’t because of the nature of their relationship and where her future is taking her. Now, he’s drawn into the investigation, working conjointly with human police, of two deaths, and two people vanishing. All that, coinciding with Auld Bloods about to enter government, attacks on the Auld Church / Providence Company, and violent protests, the world around Camellia is about to explode.

Humans killing humans? That’s strictly a human police matter.

Aulds killing Aulds, or a homicide with either an Auld or human killing the other? That’s COMPANY business.

“When you were an Auld Blood, you were what you were. You worked for the company, you used Hallo to benefit others, or you were forgotten, floating away from society like turds down a drain.”

How Tinsley crafts her characters continues to be one of her many fabulous attributes as an author. Unlike her “Vanguard Chronicles” books, in this shorter novel, the reader stays with the third person perspective of the gruff, tortured, sometimes insensitive and obtuse, yet stalwart, determined and goodhearted Camellia, in “The Hallows.” He’s an enthralling lead, and the writer’s terse, edgy, but eloquent characterization only enhances how well-fleshed out he is.

“Camellia, on the other hand, was far more furtive with his guilt. He kept his leashed like a dog, yanking the chain whenever it barked.”

Tinsley excels at writing morally ambiguous or flawed characters, and in Camellia she provides another wonderful protagonist who is often insensitive, and obtuse, but also extremely dedicated to his colleagues and his work, determined, and courageous.

The surrounding cast is absolutely stellar, with most of the auxiliary players also being assessors who all go by nicknames, their real names irrelevant, even sometimes forgotten. When they retire or die in the line of duty, a new i.e. Camellia, takes their place.

“The job remained the same. The names remained the same. The mission remained the same. Only the people changed.”

Forget-Me-Not, Sunday, Daffodil, June, and Tussie were great additions to the story, each felt distinct and very intriguing. These are the sort of colorful and dazzling characters who could have books of their own written about them.

(Personally I’m petitioning Tinsley, if we can’t get at least a whole book about the Lord of Spiders, we DEFINITELY NEED a Mother Superior Ashya prequel).

“Mother Ashya came next, dressed in her full robes and with a black lace veil covering her horns. Not that you could really cover them. It did soften the image though. Made her seem more approachable. Like putting a ribbon around a tiger’s neck.”

The worldbuilding is woven organically throughout the novel. Tinsley crafts a highly authentic world, that feels tangible, with its own lore and mythos. The Auld religion / corporation was my favourite aspect of the world building. Protected by a benevolent, eclectic, but fierce and powerful group of nuns, you can’t look away from these sisters, whenever they appear on the page. Even if they try to float away from you. The clever weaving of the Providence Company into both religious and business entity felt unique and captivating.

I adored how, in terms of her magic system, Tinsley outlined the various skills and abilities of the Aulds in her world, and how common or rare they were: Dashers, Stouts, Shiners, Wisps, Sixers, Feathers, Flickers, etc.

As is my wont, I would have liked to know more about the world, but of course I am a fan of copious, highly immersive worldbuilding based on density (i.e. Malazan, LOTR, WOLAS). Still, this is not a criticism of the writing. Tinsley’s subtle worldbuilding touch certainly conveys well the setting, tone, and feelings of what it is like to exist in her world, and she thrives painting brooding urban environments, filled with melancholy, and eerie vibes. The technological level is analogous to 20th century-ish, with motor cars, etc., and feels period crime noir.

Quick note again: The Lord of Spiders! Watch for him! Delightfully creepy and unforgettable imagery here!

The pace is smooth, quick, and the action scenes, especially the climatic battle, is filled with thrilling, visceral action.

Tinsley always does great thematic work, and this book maintains those high standards. Two things stood out for me.

1)Esprit de corps among the assessor colleagues, in the face of conflicting priorities, life and death challenges, and potential despair due to their difficult roles, and the fate that awaited them at the end of their usefulness.

2) The feelings of being part of a longstanding organization, and what it’s like to perhaps wonder if your contribution matters, if you’re just a number, to be quickly replaced and forgotten about after you leave.

Re: 1) The camaraderie among the assessor teams was heart-warming, realistic, and filled with great dark humour, ribbing each other, and ultimately admiration, love, self-sacrifice, and honour.

Re: 2) I loved this quote, that reflects the theme:

“Should they fall in the service of the Auld Church and Providence Company, the could expect to be celebrated with warm beer, questionable sandwiches, and a little light jazz.”

This is a poignant story, filled with lots of moral ambiguities, contradictory goals, hidden agendas, anxiety, angst, people torn between what’s right and wrong, and that’s the sort of story that Tinsley spins with aplomb, and makes it look easy.

Tinsley’s prose continues to be taunt, polished, accessible, witty, and flows effortlessly. I’ve inserted so many quotes from the book in this review, to display her writing style. It’s not as flowery as is my normal preference, but it’s undeniably excellent.

“…when the enemy is pointing a gun at you, it’s hard to trust the man who made the bullet.”

H.L. Tinsley absolutely retains the title of HRH, Princess of Grimdark, with “The Hallows, an exciting, stellar new book that fans of fast-paced, mature and nuanced dark urban fantasy will gobble up.

Five stars!

BUY IT HERE!

 

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