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Nathan’s review of The Hallows by HL Tinsley

Magical drugs? Flying nuns? Possibly evil religious organizations that operate as corporations? Check, check, and check.

HL Tinsley takes a brief break from her mangificent in-progress Vanguard Chronicles to introduce readers to a new world that is as gritty and sometimes icky as her other novels, but this time with just a bit more of a tinge of whimsy that breaks through some of the darkness. The Hallows is gripping and exciting, poetic and thought-provoking, and it definitely belongs at the top of your TBR.

The Hallows is centered around Camellia, a low ranking employee of the Providence Company, which specializes in the production and control of the dangerous and magical subsance called The Hallow. The Hallow grants partiular abilities to members of the Auld Ones, an ancient and powerful group of beings who only get more powerful when they imbibe on Hallow. The Auld Ones are also the controllers of the predominant religious authority, and the highest ranking members of the Providence Company are both nuns and shrewd businesswomen. The Providence Company carefully controls the movement and use of Hallow because not only do they want to profit off the drug by creating an artificial scarcity, but also because Hallow is deadly to humans who try and use it. As The Hallows begins, Camellia is tasked with investigating a series of Hallows-related deaths, deaths that may or may not be related to the first Auld One to ever be elected to office. From there, Tinsley thrusts readers into a story that goes from the lowest, most underground parts of society to those who are the most visible and the most powerful.

The Hallows is a fun story that is simultaenously both the very definition of grimdark (I’ll return to this in just a minute) and also a whole heck of a lot of fun. The book is set in a 1920s style world, giving it a unique sense of flair that distinguishes it from other fantasy works (that tend to choose either faux-medieval, flintlock, or gaslamp for their European based settings), while also getting to play around with analogues with American Prohibition and the entire “speakeasy” pheneomenon (Tinsley is British and I’m not sure if they have the same 1920s aesthetic, and so I don’t know if this parallel was intentional or not). The 1920s urban reality of The Hallows is as fun to explore as it is efficiently constructed, which is a real strenght of the book.

Tinsley belongs on the panetheon of grimdark authors, and her particular special superpower is her ability to evoke a strong sense of place with sparse prose and short, subtle descriptions. “Worldbuilding” is always a buzzword in fantasy reading circles, and with it often comes an expectation that authors will produce quite chonky tomes that detail a world’s ecology, religion, economics, and every other element of its history, culture, and society. You won’t find much of that in Tinsley’s works. Like with her Vanguard Chronicles, Tinsley is more interested in the people of the story, their experiences, and how the world ultimately impacts them. Tinsley’s books are short (I think all of them clock in around or under 300 pages) and as the reader you won’t know everything about the worlds that Tinsley’s stories occupy. Heck, if you would have told me this book happened in an AU historial version of London I would believe you, and I would equally believe you if you told me it happened in a more modern period in Westeros. When you read a Tinsley book like The Hallows, you aren’t picking it up for the epic scale. You are picking it up because there are few writers at Tinsley’s level who can make smaller, more nuanced conflicts shine through. Tinsley doesn’t write about kings and queens, war generals or high mages. Her stories are more “street level”, with people swept up in more plots that they have no idea the origins of. As readers, we are at their level – we see the world through their eyes, particularly in The Hallows where we get a single POV. The narration of the book is concerned with what Camellia cares about – and that sure isn’t international politics.

And yet, through the sparser descriptions, the world around Camellia comes fully alive. The Hallows is not quite at the grimdark-levels of the Vanguard Chronicles, but all of the places Camellia visits (whether it is drug dens, brothels, or nunnery headquarters) all have a distinct feeling from them that leap off of the page. I’ve seen writers spend pages describing a landscape that still feels distant and underdeveloped, while Tinsley can come through with just a quick phrase and instantly transport you. It’s a magnificent skill on full display here, and readers who appreciate shorter books will definitely want to check this one out.

In addition to her worldbuilding, Tinsley also nails it with the themes she seeks to explore. All of her themes revolve around whether society can really change, and the ways in which power can manifest in diverse ways. I think this is what makes The Hallows a wonderful addition to the grimdark library. Some terrifying stuff happens in this book – when humans use Hallow there is some real messed up suff – but Tinsley doesn’t dwell on those descriptions; she lets the readers fill in the details with their own imaginations. Instead, what Tinsley does so well is induce a sense of dread of whether things can actually change. The real-world 1920s was a time of change and optimism; the Great War (the one that was suppossed to be the final one) was over and a new era was suppossed to be ushered in – but as we have seen the changes were more superficial than anything. Camellia goes through so much in the book, but the biggest question is whether all of this effort really matters. Yes, maybe he will (or will not) succeed in solving the immediate crisis, but does this have any further enduring impact? The deeper Camellia goes, the more that question getse more difficult to answer.

Within this discussion, Tinsley is also very much interested in questions of identity. “Camellia” is not the main character’s birth name, but rather a name given to him by the Providence Company. This is the case for all of the employees, who belong to different teams with different naming “themes” (Camellia’s team is all named after flowers, another team is named after days of the week, etc.). This is a dehumanizing practice, especially as names are recycled whenever a current employee leaves (and by “leaves”, I mostly mean dies). There was a Camellia before our Camellia, and there will be another Camellia down the line. Employees of the Providence Company don’t inhabit these roles as individuals with unique individuals, but as cogs in a machine with limited differences between them outside of their unique magical abilities. Tinsley is so nuanced and yet clear about her thoughts on the roles that capitalism and corporatization play in our lives. The Providence Corporation only exists as it does because the role of religion has diminished over time, and the Auld Ones need to replace their religious authority with economic authority – and even more legitimate forms of political authority.

Thus, grimdark fans will be happy with Tinsley’s of-bleak outlook on the world and the gritty and grimy nature of her world. However, if you don’t really jive with grimdark (but also aren’t explicitly looking for something cozy), you may also find a lot to love in The Hallows. It is fast-paced, witty, and is often a hoot among all of the “society is bad and everything is bad” ethos of the work as a whole. That’s probably contradictory, but it is a very delicate balance that Tinsley is able to maintain.

Whether you are a longtime fan of the Vanguard Chronicles or brand new to Tinsley’s works, The Hallows is a clever grimdark historical fantasy that send you on a dark adventure and whet your appetite for more Tinsley content. Highly recommended!

Concluding ThoughtsThe Hallows is a grimdark fantasy that remembers to not always take itself too seriously while peeling back discussions of identity, individuality, and faith in the time of capitalism and corportization. Tinsley’s book has everything grimdark fans would want – illicit and dangerous drugs, some body horror, and a gritty underground world – while also not reveling in the darkness too much to scare off other readers. Instead, we see an unjust world through a witty POV character who is trying to do his best in a world of moral contradictions. The books move fast and never misses a bit. Check this one out whether you are new to Tinsley or a longtime fan!

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Hallows!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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