I’m going to start by hazarding a guess that you’ve never heard of Caitlin Sweet, though this is her third novel. I stumbled on her work mostly by accident myself, and even I had no idea — literally none — that she’d just published another book this past fall until I stumbled on the news by accident again.
Sweet writes literary fantasy. Her first two novels, A Telling of Stars and The Silences of Home, are related stories occurring in the same world, though generations apart in time. The first is a personal saga more than an epic one, as a young woman embarks on a journey of revenge that she thinks will be heroic; the second is grander, and is greatly interested in the differences between what really happened and what we all collectively remember (or decide) happened.
But The Pattern Scars is very different from both. Nola is born into terrible poverty, but when her mother discovers she has Othersight — the ability to see the Pattern to come — she sells her to a brothel for a few coins. In Sarsenay, brothels serve two purposes: the usual one and the Otherseeing one, where customers come and pay the seer to tell them a prophecy. Nola is apprenticed to the current seer, Yigranzi, who teaches her about Otherseeing — but not at a pace Nola appreciates.
This greed for knowledge is her downfall, and leads her to trust the promises of a man named Orlo. He is a powerful Otherseer from the castle, aid to the king himself, and he takes Nola from the brothel with promises that she’ll soon become a castle seer herself.
Instead, he traps her in a web of lies and dark deeds that give the novel a horror aesthetic. The plot twists like a nightmare, one with a lot of blood and a lot of darkness. There is so much blood and so much dark subject matter that the book might have been a depressing, dreary, melodramatic mess, except that Sweet handles the story so well. Nola could have become a passive, dull victim of a helpless situation, but she doesn’t — because she never quite gives up, because she has just enough autonomy to keep a few secrets of her own, and because she is no innocent herself.
Sweet strikes a perfect balance with the prose, just enough lyricism and vibrant sensory detail to set the chilling tone, but not enough fancy wordwork to take the reader out of the story. (Though, to be fair, I may have a higher limit for fancy wordwork than others.) The novel is light on worldbuilding because worldbuilding isn’t the point: Character is. Nola tells the story in first person, so we only see those parts of the world that Nola has access to, and her world is very limited. This self-contained setting helps to create the nightmare but it may also be the novel’s weakness, in that some characters come and go without seeming to have lives beyond their interactions with Nola. In the end I think it works, though I am still left with some lingering questions about what some of the secondary characters did when they weren’t anywhere near her.
Final recommendation: A good book for readers who like a dark (as in really dark) character-driven fantasy with more than a dash of horror thrown in. And if the words “literary” and “fantasy” used in conjunction make you as excited as they make me, check out all of Caitlin Sweet’s novels. All are well-reviewed and undersold, and that’s a pity. Here’s hoping The Pattern Scars brings her the recognition she deserves.