Serpent in the Heather

There was a lot to love about Kay Kenyon's latest alternate history fantasy novel, At the Table of Wolves. So much so that I couldn't resist and decided to jump into the sequel sooner rather than later! The first installment was an introduction to what appeared to be a vaster and more ambitious tale, and I was curious to discover where the author would take her story next.

And I'm glad I did, for Serpent in the Heather is even better than its predecessor. Building on the events and storylines from At the Table of Wolves, Kenyon raised the bar higher and elevated this series to another level. Time will tell if she can continue to up her game with each new volume. And yet, given how special The Entire and the Rose turned out to be, this bodes well for things to come.

Here's the blurb:

Now officially working for the Secret Intelligence Service, Kim Tavistock is back to solve another mystery—this time a serial killer with deep Nazi ties—in the sequel to At the Table of Wolves.

Summer, 1936. In England, an assassin is loose. Someone is killing young people who possess Talents. As terror overtakes Britain, Kim Tavistock, now officially employed by England’s Secret Intelligence Service, is sent on her first mission: to the remote Sulcliffe Castle in Wales, to use her cover as a journalist to infiltrate a spiritualist cult that may have ties to the murders. Meanwhile, Kim’s father, trained spy Julian Tavistock runs his own parallel investigation—and discovers the terrifying Nazi plot behind the serial killings.

Cut off from civilization, Sulcliffe Castle is perched on a forbidding headland above a circle of standing stones only visible at low tide. There, Kim shadows a ruthless baroness and her enigmatic son, plying her skills of deception and hearing the truths people most wish to hide. But as her cover disguise unravels, Kim learns that the serial killer is closing in on a person she has grown to love. Now, Kim must race against the clock not just to prevent the final ritual killing—but to turn the tide of the looming war.

In my review of the first installment, I opined that the worldbuilding was very interesting and opened up countless possibilities. Nobody was quite sure just how the bloom came about, but it was widely believed that the deaths and the suffering engendered by World War I generated the birth of the Talents, those supernatural abilities, in ordinary men and women, especially in the countries that had dealt with the Great War. The action takes place a few months following the events of At the Table of Wolves. The Nazis have risen to power and Germany is rearming, preparing for the great conflict to come. The British, with their heads still up their asses, refuse to face the fact that war is coming again. And although they have begun their own program, they are about a decade behind the Germans in terms of training people with Talents for warfare. It felt as though there was so much room for growth concerning the Talents and I was looking forward to see what Kenyon had in store for her readers in that regard. What we saw in At the Table of Wolves barely scratched the surface and the potential for more was enormous.

We do learn more about Talents in general, but the sad truth is that the British know very little compared to their German counterparts. And though I like what we've seen thus far, I often feel that Kay Kenyon plays her cards too close to her chest. Given that we discover things at the same pace as the POV protagonists, learning such secrets by small increments is understandable but could be detrimental to the series in the long run. Here's to hoping that the third volume will open up the story in that regard. Still, the addition of Dries Verhoeven's Talent to the mix was great. We just need to see more Talents unveiled to add more layers to what is becoming a more complex tale with each new book.

In At the Table of Wolves, I enjoyed the fact that the military and the secret services had screwed up their only chance to discover what the Germans were preparing and it came down to an ordinary woman with a peculiar Talent to try to save her country. A few people with very limited resources had to find a way to obtain proof of the danger by putting their lives on the line. Ordinary people who needed to accomplish extraordinary things. And although the foiled German invasion was an eye-opener for the British, it's still up to those same few individuals to protect Great Britain from her enemies.

With both Kim Tavistock and her father Julian working as undercover agents, none of them can reveal their secret identity to the other and this builds up a lot of tension in their relationship. Having played a large role in thwarting the German's plan to conquer her country, Kim went through training in the arts of espionage. Nevertheless, she remains a somewhat raw recruit. At first exciting, it gradually dawns upon her that having a security clearance and a being a spy can be extremely hard on her private life. Her conscience is seldom at ease with what she is required to do and what she's becoming. But when her peculiar Talent appears to be the only thing that can possibly help shine some light on a series of murders, Kim has no choice but to put herself in danger once more.

Kim and her father are the main points of view throughout the novel, yet the supporting cast is made up of a number of engaging characters. Due to her Talent, Alice plays a bigger role in Serpent in the Heather, which was good. Owen Cherwell has been promoted and is not necessarily comfortable with his new functions. Dries Verhoeven offered a different, always interesting perspective. New faces such as Dorothea Coslett, Powell Coslet, Idelle Coslett, and young Martin were all compelling in disparate ways. Elsa is also back from her injuries and makes for an interesting spy. All in all, the characterization was well-done on every level.

Once again, the pace of this book was exactly what it needed to be. As the secrets between Kim and her father continue to pile up, the tension builds up toward another endgame that delivers an even more satisfying finale this time around. Events force both Kim and Julian to make dire and life-changing choices, something that should have important repercussions in future installments.

My only complaint thus far would have to be the decidedly episodic format of these two books. From now on, Kay Kenyon will have to raise the bar even higher and not just throw Kim into danger in the hope that her Talent will force someone to reveal secrets while she acts as a journalist working on a new story. Given the quality of both At the Table of Wolves and Serpent in the Heather, the potential for bigger and better things is definitely there and expectations will understandably be higher in the future. We'll have to wait and see if the author can rise to the occasion.

I commend this series to your attention. If you're looking for something different, look no further and give these two novels a shot!

The final verdict: 7.75/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

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