This is a series of reviews of my favorite books published between 2010 and 2019.
The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns (2013)
The Burn Palace begins with a maternity nurse discovering that one of the newborns in her care has disappeared and has been replaced by a six-foot corn snake, and it just gets wilder from there. Dobyns brings in a huge case of characters, residents of the fictional small town of Brewster, Rhode Island, as well as renegade coyotes, mysterious Satanists, and a rampaging lunatic to terrify them all. But at the heart of a story is a mystery, and State Trooper Woody Potter doggedly pursues the solution while reminding us that it’s all about the baby.
Dobyns juggles his cast of characters gracefully, giving us readers time to get to know the various cops, kids, town characters, and even dogs that populate Brewster, so we can better care about their safety as things start ramping up. His omniscient narrator relates the story with a folksy voice, almost as if he’s sitting beside us and whispering in our ear. The petty politics and soap opera-like relationships of small-town life gradually take on sinister undertones as the plot unravels. It became very difficult to put the book down once all the pieces start whirling together.
This was a fun and thrilling read, reminiscent of Dobyns’ The Church of Dead Girls or one of Stephen King’s small-town tales. For me, the only major flaw was the hint of magical realism, never fully explained or incorporated fully into the overall story. But that is more than made up for by Dobyns’ characters, setting, and audacious plot.