Book Review: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher - The Fantasy Review

Book Review: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Calebrity’s Review of What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Publication Date: July 12, 2022
Series: Book 1 in Swarn Soldier
Genre: Gothic, Horror, Fantasy
Pages: 176
Rating: 4.5 Stars

Publisher’s Blurb

When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.

What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.

Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.

Review of What Moves the Dead

Gothic fiction has never been a strong interest of mine. I was one of the few emo kids in high school that didn’t go through a Poe phase. And while I remember reading The Fall of the House of Usher for school, nothing about the story has stuck with me well over a decade later. 

With all that in mind, I resisted reading What Moves the Dead for some time. I have been meaning to pick up T. Kingfisher (the pen name for Ursula Vernon), and this book was repeatedly recommended to me as a good jumping-on point. 

I’m happy to report that not only is What Moves the Dead very good, but it manages to capture the spirit of Poe’s gothic work while improving upon the original text’s core concepts. Basically, What Moves the Dead is a great read. In fact, it’s damn near perfect for what it wants to be. 

The story follows Alex Easton, a soldier from the fictional country of Gallacia. Alex is visiting the dilapidated Usher estate to see her childhood friend Madeline after receiving a distressing letter from her. Along the way, she meets Miss Elizabeth Potter, an eccentric woman with a particular interest in mycology (mushrooms). 

At the estate, Alex sees Madeline’s terrible condition, as well as the deteriorating mental state of her brother Roderick. Things take a turn from there as Alex and crew unravel what is wrong with the Usher house. 

One point in the book’s favor is how surprisingly funny it is. From Potter’s haughtiness to everyone bashing Denton for being American, the book has several lighthearted moments. These contrast excellently with the oppressive atmosphere of the Usher estate and the downright creepy moments of the book’s latter half. 

The book is also a quick read. At just 176 pages, I managed to get through it in under two days, but even slow readers could get through it in about a week. Despite the length, though, the book feels heavy on exposition. Easton spends a great deal of time discussing the traditions of Gallacian people, from the history of women joining the military to the seven sets of pronouns in the language. 

On the one hand, it makes Alex and the fictional country feel more real, and several of the expositional points do become relevant in later chapters. On the other hand, I felt like these sections could have used a bit of trimming. The story is a bit of a slow burn, and these sections brought the pace to a crawl. If the book were any longer that might be a larger problem, but again it is a very quick read. 

Without giving too much away, Kingfisher does bring it all together at the end for a stellar and spine-tingling finale. The book is far from the most graphic thing I’ve ever read, but there is some unsettling imagery put to good use. The big secret of the Usher estate and its implications are also very terrifying, and are much better than the great unknown in Poe’s original work. 

What Moves the Dead is a moody and quick read that perfectly contrasts its gothic tone with a bit of humor. Kingfisher’s imagery, worldbuilding, and fascination with mushrooms culminate to a satisfying conclusion, even if the worldbuilding does slow it down just a little bit. What we’re left with is an excellent gothic horror novella that leaves me hungry for more Kingfisher and mysterious mansions.  

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