Feb 6 2018 4:00pm

Review: The Storm King by Brendan Duffy

The Storm King by Brendan Duffy follows a young doctor, haunted by dark secrets and an unsolved mystery, who returns to his isolated Adirondacks hometown in a tense, gripping novel in the vein of Michael Koryta and Harlan Coben (available February 6, 2018).

Brendan Duffy’s The Storm King is one of those novels that inhabits the interstitial space between thrillers and literary fiction. The story is packed with the elements of a mystery/thriller, but the writing is prone to explosions of elegance and poetry. The latter sometimes takes over and affects the way the story moves forward—trapped in all that verbiage and description—but Duffy has found a superb balance between the two that allows the story to breathe; the literary elements only seep into the dialogue occasionally, allowing it to remain believable.

Nate McHale is a respected pediatric oncological surgeon living in New York City. He has a beautiful wife and a lovely young girl at home to make his life round and, some would say, almost perfect. However, his current state has nothing in common with his roots, which lie tangled in darkness, pain, loss, and destruction back in his Adirondack hometown of Greystone Lake.

Fourteen years ago, Nate lost his family to a car accident—one he was involved in and which changed him forever. Now, he is coming back home because the body of someone who meant a lot to him has been found after years of thinking the person had simply disappeared. Nate tries his best to reconnect with friends, his grandmother, and even old enemies, but before he can go to the funeral that brought him back, he is forced to deal with a stunning reality: strangers who seem to know everything he thought was a secret in his past are out there now, doing bad things and hurting his friends and family.     

As a massive hurricane approaches the Northeast and Greystone Lake prepares for it, the atmosphere in town changes—old secrets come to the surface, past mistakes start playing a role in the present, and a new murder and disappearance ushers in a lot of questions, disorder, pain, and memories. The past stops being the past, and Nate is caught in the middle of it—at once powerless to act and turning back into the person he once was.

On its surface, The Storm King is another novel about someone from a small town coming back after a few years to face the past. However, Duffy is not content with merely treading known territory, and he does a great job of making the plot feel new by changing around some elements, constantly exploring the effects of grief and showing the shifting nature of friendship. Also, the novel is beautifully written, which sets it apart from others like it:

Nate asks his question and watches the chief’s pale face crumble. The man falls to his knees on the rocks. A new gravity takes grip of Nate. It is so powerful that he feels a breach open within him as if he has shattered under pressure. Not another break in his ribs or in his ruined arm, but a crack at his foundation. Something is lost, and he is diminished. The sun fades. He doesn’t feel less cold, but he stops shaking. He knows that from now on he will be less than what he was.

The Storm King is about Nate and his journey, but it also about the lives of his friends, his entire high school, those touched by his tragedy, and even the town itself, which is as full of stories and ghosts as any small town with a rich history. The way Duffy navigates this is by offering two timelines in the narrative: the present and Nate’s last year of high school. The things that happened in the past start playing a huge role in the present, but the how and the why are things the author reveals slowly, masterfully, and with enough violence, memories, and side stories to keep the reader glued to the page.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this novel is its atmosphere. There are dread and water, remembrance and loss, fear of secrets being exposed, and the realization that some of them weren’t secrets at all. Furthermore, the main character is deeply layered and complicated. He is a lost child—a victim of misfortune—but he slowly morphs into something else, something dark and powerful that feeds on righteous vengeance and acts of vandalism in the name of justice. Reading about him is as engaging as reading about the stories of the ghosts that inhabit the town, and that keeps the reader turning the pages and trying to guess what comes next.

The Storm King is a haunting, wonderfully written thriller with a lot of nostalgia in its veins and a creepy atmosphere that digs deep into the gloomy horrors of small-town living. There is pain here, but there are also shining moments and plenty of great writing, and that makes the violence and suffering feel as beautiful as the summer days spent in the sun.


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Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. His reviews can be found in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Verbicide, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, HorrorTalk, The Brooklyn Rail, and other venues. Iglesias is PANK Magazine's book reviews editor, Entropy Magazine's film/television editor, and a columnist for LitReactor and Clash Media. His novels include GutmouthHungry Darkness, and Zero Saints. Find him on Twitter @Gabino_Iglesias

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