The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony of North Carolina is one of the great American mysteries and one of the largest documented disappearances in the history of the world. 116 people in total disappeared and many theories have tried to account for these missing people. In Gwenda Bond’s debut novel Blackwood she takes the historical fact of the disappearance, fills in with some more history, and adds some conjecture of dark magic to the disappearance. All of that is in the background for most of the novel and instead Ms. Bond focuses her novel on Miranda Blackwood, a young lady who works for the local theater and cares for her drunk father, her mother having passed away long before the novel begins. Phillips* Rawlings, an equally distraught young man who was sent off the island after being caught in a mischievous act, plays as central a role, is the police chief’s song who happens to hear strange voices.
One day at practice for the play, Miranda sees a ghost ship and days later, another 114 people disappear from Roanoke. When Phillips sees the events on the news from his boarding school, he knows he has to come home and see what help he can provide. Phillips left Roanoke because of voices that would invade his thoughts, and leaving the island was his only recourse. As it turns out Phillips and Miranda are acquaintances and Phillips did not exactly leave on good terms with Miranda. You see, Miranda is something of a blacksheep in the town of Roanoke, her family roots tracing all the way back to the original disappearance. She’s enough of an outcast that people taunt her and after she causes a scene being the only one who saw the aforementioned ghost ship, is greeted with FREAK in large letters writ on her car. Another part of the Blackwood family curse is that none of them can leave the island, when Miranda attempts to do just that, she gets very sick. As the voices overwhelm Phillips in portions of the novel, he blacks out.
Once Phillips gets back to Roanoke, it is left to he and Miranda to solve the mystery of the missing people. Along the way, spirits inhabit bodies, people seemingly return to life, ancient weapons of magic are discovered, and a few red herrings crop up to keep the plot moving. Adding to the tension is the (somewhat obvious) romantic subplot between Phillips and Miranda. Bond plays their budding romance pretty well, thought at times it felt a bit rushed but that’s likely due to the briskly paced narrative.
I found both Miranda and Phillips to be engaging and believable characters. Miranda often dropped the “frak” bomb when frustrated and references to other geek culture shows abounded. In other words, Miranda’s a girl on whom a younger version of myself might have had a crush. Bond did a very good job of making me root for both of these young kids and making them both outcasts who find common ground. Ms. Bond captured the awkwardness of late teen years, especially the unspoken instances of attraction between the two characters, very well in the novel. She also did an excellent job of interweaving historical elements into the fantastical plot, something I suspect would make younger readers interested in finding out more about the historical mystery of the Roanoke Colony.
Blackwood is an impressive debut novel for Ms. Bond and is hopefully just the first of many novels she plans to write. Furthermore, Blackwood has the honor of being the launch title for Strange Chemistry, the new YA imprint from the fine folks at Angry Robot Books. If Blackwood is any indication, editor Amanda Rutter has a keen eye and this imprint will be a successful one.
*yes, his name is Phillips and not Phillip, this was about the only annoyance I found in the book.
© 2012 Rob H. Bedford