7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Halloween Week – Book Review: Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Title: Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Author: Cherie Priest

Genre: Southern Gothic

Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 17 Oct 2005
Paperback: 285 pages

Stand alone or series: First in a trilogy

Although she was orphaned at birth, Eden Moore is never alone. Three dead women watch from the shadows, bound to protect her from harm. But in the woods a gunman waits, convinced that Eden is destined to follow her wicked great-grandfather – an African magician with the power to curse the living and raise the dead. Now Eden must decipher the secret of the ghostly trio before a new enemy more dangerous than the fanatical assassin destroys what is left of her family. She will sift through lies in a Georgian antebellum mansion and climb through the haunted ruins of a nineteenth century hospital, desperately seeking the truth that will save her beloved aunt from the curse that threatens her life.

Why did I read this book: Because of the cover: I saw this at one of the blogs I read (I can’t remember which!) and thought the cover was so awesome, I decided to read it.

How did I get this book: Bought


Four and Twenty Blackbirds is my first official encounter with the Southern Gothic subgenre of Gothic novels and (as predictable as this sounds) it shan’t be my last. Even though I am not much into horror, I have always been a fan of the idea of Gothic novels. I say idea because the actual execution of the majority of Gothic novels I have read, with their excesses and absurd plots have prevented me from truly enjoying them. What is interesting to me, from what I could gather from reading Four and Twenty Blackbirds is that Southern Gothic seems to both converge and diverge with its parent genre in the best possible way because it deals with the supernatural but without the excesses or melodramatic plotting that makes Gothic novels so unrealistic to me. Add to that a bit of social and racial issues as part of the landscape and ergo, something that I can truly get behind.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is the story of Eden Moore and it follows her from childhood to adulthood; she is a kid who never knew her parents and was brought up by her mother’s sister, aunt Lulu and her husband David and although curious about her past, love for Lulu coupled with a bit of fear has prevented her from delving too much and asking the questions she always wanted to ask.

Furthermore: Eden sees ghosts. She has seen ghosts ever since she was little and that is just who she is and what she does. Although it does require a certain diplomacy in navigating the murky waters of her school and the racial slurs thrown at her as though being bi-racial and seeing ghosts are a natural combination: she is one of those people from the South, according to some of her white school mates.

It is not a secret that Eden’s family branch is descended of African Americans but it is sort of a secret that they have connections with the all-white Dufresne family and just how those connections have evolved through the ages in a story that spans for more than a century is really the meats and bones of Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

As Eden grows up, she also grows a little bit apart from her side of family because as much as she loves Lulu and David, growing up, getting an education and a job is a hard thing to do especially when someone is trying to kill you. Prompted by these attempts on her life by someone whom she later finds out, is a close relative, Eden starts to really investigate her family tree and that’s when things get really moving.

Old mansions, graveyards, decrepit asylums (that hosted teenagers in problem, this very idea perhaps more frightening than any ghostly appearance in the entire book), ghost towns and voodoo , as well as the ghosts of three women who are relatives are all present and accounted for giving it its distinct gothic flavour. But also the strong characterisation of its main character who is a confident, capable young woman, who is flawed, stubborn and sometimes mental when dealing with those who are against her.

On the writing department, I enjoy Cherie Priest’s writing style but had problems with the choice of words in some passages which pulled me right off the story. In one particular sequence when Eden has been kidnapped and is in the trunk of a car, she describes the situation:

“Despite the ache in my cranium, my cognitive powers crept back to me”

I mean, who speaks like that? Admittedly, I was never in a similar situation but I honestly don’t think I would be musing about my “cranium” and “cognitive powers” when inside a trunk of a car. It just sounded really off but thankfully these passages were few and far between.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds is a book that is more atmospheric than terrifying, although a couple of sequences were of the truly frightening variety (namely, a sequence at the asylum and another one at a park). It is a ghost story, but above all a story of Eden’s identity and past, and her family ties. It is a book full of incredible tales especially those that take place during Eden’s childhood and they might not be part of the grand scheme of things or the main story arc but definitely add knowledge about the character’s development and growth going back to the idea that Identity (and self-awareness) is at the centre of this story. When I said I wouldn’t mind reading more Southern Gothic stories, I also meant that I would very much like to read more Eden Moore’s stories, and thankfully there are two more in this series.

Notable quotes/Parts: Excerpt from chapter one:

I. Eden

“Draw me a picture of someplace you’ve been that you liked very much,” Mrs. Patterson suggested, pronouncing each word with the firm, specific articulation peculiar to those who work with children. “It can be anyplace at all-an amusement park, a playground, a tree house or your bedroom. Maybe you went on vacation once and visited the beach. You could draw the ocean with seagulls and shells. Or maybe you went camping on the mountain. You might have gone down to the waterfall for a picnic, or up to Sunset Rock. Pick a place special to you, and when you’re finished, we’ll put your pictures up on the bulletin board in the hallway.”

I cringed, staring down at the blank sheet of coarse cream paper. Before me was a plastic tub filled with fat, fruit-scented markers, ripe for the choosing. While the other kids at my table dove into a frenzy of scribbles I stalled for time, popping the lid off each color and sniffing for inspiration.

Red is for cherries. Purple is for grape. Green is for . . . I didn’t recognize the scent.

But green is for . . . yes, green is for water.

I jammed the lid onto the back of the marker and began to scrawl a wide pool across the bottom half of the sheet. Green is for water. And for alligators. I picked up the yellow marker (supposed to be lemons, but smelled like detergent) and drew two periscope eyeballs poking up through the swirls. Then I outlined them with black (licorice) and drew a long snout with two bumps for nostrils.

Brown. Brown was chocolate.

I sketched tall, thin trees that reached up past the top of the page. And snakes. Brown is for snakes. Wrapped around one trunk I placed a spiraled serpent with a wide open mouth. I gave him a strawberry pink tongue shaped like a “Y”.

But I was missing something. I chewed on my thumbnail and tapped the brown pen. A house. A brown house set on blocks for when the water rose too high, with a cherry red canoe tied to the front porch just in case. A brown chocolate house, made of flat boards with a sloping gray roof that let the fresh rain water run into a barrel. Gray is for . . . A gray roof.

And gray is for . . .

Gray is for . . .

Mrs. Patterson’s hands fluttered into my vision. “My goodness, Eden. What a vivid picture you’ve made! Now where is this?”

“Gray is for ghosts!” I blurted out.

Additional thoughts: The two other books in the trilogy also have these amazing covers – and I can’t wait to read them.

Also: any Southern Gothic fans in the house? Recommendations very welcome!

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Glitter Rose by Marianne de Pierres

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  • Danielle
    October 25, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Does As I Lay Dying count as Southern Gothic? Cause it should. Anything by Tennessee Williams as well.
    I think this is one of those I ordered of Cherie Priest’s backlist after loving Boneshaker
    Great review!

  • SonomaLass
    October 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    I got this book as a free e-book back when Tor was giving one free book a month to promote authors with hefty backlists. I’m reading Dreadnought right now, and I may put this in the queue, because I so enjoy Priest’s writing.

    Thanks for the review & reminder!

  • Kate
    October 25, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Hmm, intriguing. I’m a scaredy-cat, so I tend to steer clear of spooky ghost stories, but this one sounds like it might be more my speed. Plus, I rather like Cherie Priest’s writing…although that “cranium” passage gives me pause. Who can remember the word “cranium” after being beaned in it?!

  • Celine
    October 26, 2010 at 3:58 am

    That excerpt is extraordinarily vivid.
    I’m going to check these out asap!

  • Travis Kilgore
    October 27, 2010 at 6:44 am

    Fun fact: the particularly frightening asylum sequence is based on a true story. Find Cherie on Facebook (Cherie M. Priest), friend her (she befriends everyone) and ask her about the real story behind that part of Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

  • Leslie
    October 31, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    I am not a big fan of scary scary books, but found myself absorbed in Priest’s prose. I liked the first two and was creeped out (primarily by her well-drawn atmosphere, which you note), but the third one kept me looking over my shoulder for days. I was traveling solo for school and spent some jumpy nights in hotel rooms. Two thumbs way up.

  • The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » Book Review: Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell
    February 21, 2011 at 12:02 am

    […] Additional Thoughts: I find that I really like Southern Gothic novels – even as they scare the shit out of me. If you want to try more of the genre and have read Shadowed Summer already, I also recommend Cherie Priest’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds (reviewed here). […]

  • Book Review: Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell | Jagged Page
    February 21, 2011 at 1:10 am

    […] Additional Thoughts: I find that I really like Southern Gothic novels – even as they scare the shit out of me. If you want to try more of the genre and have read Shadowed Summer already, I also recommend Cherie Priest’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds (reviewed here). […]

  • Lise Lotte Almenningen
    September 7, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I speak like that! All the time, both with myself and with others.

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    September 7, 2015 at 5:54 pm

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