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Tidepool by Nicole Willson #BookReview

If ye give not willingly, the Lords will rise…

In 1913, Henry Hamilton disappeared while on a business trip, and his sister, Sorrow, won’t rest until she finds out what happened to him. Defying her father’s orders to remain at home, she travels to Tidepool, the last place Henry is known to have visited. Residents of the small, shabby oceanside town can’t quite meet Sorrow’s eyes when she asks about her brother.

When corpses wash up on shore looking as if they’ve been torn apart by something not quite human, Sorrow is ready to return to Baltimore and let her father send in the professional detectives.

However, after meeting Ada Oliver, a widow whose black silk dresses and elegant manners set her apart from other Tidepool residents, Sorrow discovers Tidepool’s dark, deadly secret.

With this discovery, some denizens of Tidepool—human and otherwise—are hell-bent on making sure Sorrow never leaves their forsaken town.

Lovecraftian dark fantasy gets a modern treatment in this terrifying debut novel.

Tidepool by Nicole Willson

Title: Tidepool | Author: Nicole Willson | Publisher: The Parliament House Press | Pub Date: 0/8/2021 | Pages: 333 | ISBN13:  978-1736981986 | Genre: Horror/Gothic | Language: English | Source: review Copy from Author | Unstarred Review

Tidepool Review

Tidepool showed a lot of promise in the early chapters. Once readers move to Sorrow Hamilton’s POV, they’re solidly entrenched in a primary character who’s pushing gender boundaries for her time, showing us her character through actions. Willson does a solid job developing this creepy little oceanside town and building a sense of dread throughout. Books don’t need constant jump scares or shocking scenes to unsettle a reader, and Willson leans into the atmosphere.

Perhaps it’s because Willson demonstrates she’s capable of show not tell writing that I found some other aspects of Tidepool disappointing. No, you can’t have all show. But large sections of narrative tell are inserted with abrupt POV shifts. Around the one-quarter mark, the book jumps into Silas’s POV. Silas is a minor character, and has half a chapter from his perspective. Then, for the first time, we jump into Ada Oliver’s POV. For these sections, Willson maintains the third person close POV used with Sorrow’s POV chapters.

Later, when we jump into Ada’s POV, it’s in first person and it takes us back in time to outline her history. By the end of the book, we’ve spent time in seven distinct character POVs. Four of those POV characters have one chapter or less devoted to them, and either do not appear even in mentions throughout the rest of the book or are only occasionally mentioned and do not have their own character arc. In one character’s case, they’re first introduced with only a handful of pages left in the entire book, and their section doesn’t serve any purpose other than to show things continue to this day; however, we already know this because of the afterward section from another character’s POV. 

For me, these sections dislodged me from the story. It’s my belief readers will invest themselves in a story like this either because they hope to learn the truth about what’s going on in this town and are mainly interested in the Lords Beneath. The other reason to invest and stay with the story is because you connect to the characters. And our primary character for most of the book is Sorrow; however, these POV jumps pull us away from her and do nothing to augment the core story components. Ada Oliver’s own story arc could have been interesting if woven throughout the entire book, interspersed with Sorrow’s, building up Ada’s choices in contract to Sorrow’s and giving the reader a reason to sympathize with both and be uncertain about which character to root for. As is, if you aren’t rooting for Sorrow and are only sticking around for monsters, you might find the content thin on that score.

As executed, I had little interest in Ada and while there’s enough referenced to show she actually had a compelling backstory, having it recapped in a chapter didn’t do much to really build sympathy or have me connect to her in a meaningful way, especially given her conduct in the current timeline.

We also have moments when we’re in omniscient POV. In one chapter, we go from close third in Sorrow’s POV to both Charlie and Sorrow’s POV, with references to what they thought. Then there’s a chapter in omniscient giving us multiple characters’ thoughts and actions all at once. That chapter could have been effectively narrated by Quentin in a way that was more powerful because of his feelings about what his sister was doing. He was the perfect lens for the horrors occurring, because of his character and disposition. We would have felt so much more.

For me, the thing with changing between third and first and omniscient POV is that it’s like looking through a pair of binoculars that someone is continually adjusting. You finally get focused on something and you’re yanked off somewhere else and have to readjust. It dislodges you from the immersive reading experience. And the thing with omniscient is that you aren’t connected to anyone. Plus, I didn’t need to know what happened to any individuals who were covered in that section, because they weren’t primary characters, and the eventual summary of what happened to the town covers it effectively.

Sometimes, less is more. And being left with some unknowns and uncertainty is far more unsettling. Bending conventional structure to overtell a story didn’t work for me here.

There were some other quibbles I had. I’m confused by the choice to use lowercase ‘b’ for Black, because uppercase is the standard with most publishers. 

Sorrow also displays some attitudes towards the townspeople, referring to them in narrative as ‘yokels’ and ‘backwards’. Charlie’s more charitable by using the term, ‘simple’. For such a progressive woman for the time, I found it tough to take from Sorrow, because she seemed to have entrenched biases and, while the lack of answers was frustrating, Sorrow was raised in a time and fashion when manners were entrenched, but she gets awfully rude fast and tells a lot of people off, and that behavior seems tied to her biases towards the townsfolk.

There was some inconsistency with Sorrow, also. She defies her father and heads to Tidepool to look for her missing brother because she’s concerned. She’s convinced something happened to him and the people in the town know and just won’t tell her. She even runs to the beach to look at a dead body when someone shouts about a murder, and is relieved to note that it isn’t her brother because the body has a different hair color. But then she goes on at length about how he must be okay because she’s certain she’d know if something happened to him.

If she was that certain, why’d she go to the town? Why’d she run to see a dead body? Why was she asking questions? The reality is that people can have complex and even conflicting emotions and there was a way to show conflict within her without making it read like a contradiction, but that section didn’t get there. She was absolute in her convictions at that point, when she needed to be questioning her judgment and struggling with hope and uncertainty. 

I fear this is one of those times when a story I initially found really interesting and a character I enjoyed gave way to a series of quibbles because of the structural issues with the book. Readers will feel differently about artistic choices, and that’s something we all have to accept. The book as is may work well for you. For me, it started off strong, hit a few speed bumps but still held my interest, and then took some major turns that weakened the book as a whole for me. With Ada’s story expanded and some of the extraneous sections removed, this could have been intense. Unfortunately, it felt disjointed and the latter sections of the book undermined the strength of the first half.

You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.

Content Warnings:

Spousal rape, Spousal abuse, Racism

Published inBook ReviewsUnstarred Reviews

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