Omens begins with an author’s note that promises literary Easter eggs. Before the story even begins.
So, if readers choose, there are mysteries to be unravelled even before the narrator can make sense of them herself, hidden by the author deliberately.
She acknowledges that some readers won’t be able to resist translating and researching some of the phrases she has included in Olivia’s story, but she hopes we will enjoy the temptation, making our discoveries along with her new heroine. (While simultaneously forgiving us, if we cannot resist.)
It’s clear that Kelley Armstrong knows how to leave just a tiny thread for the pulling.
She has published many successful stories: thirteen volumes in the Women of the Otherworld series, two YA series (one beginning with The Summoning and the other with The Gathering), the Nadia Stafford series (which begins with Exit Strategy) and two books of short stories.
This series, however, is something new. “The town of Cainsville has many secrets, and it is loath to part with them a moment sooner than necessary,” she says.
And, yet, from the first moments of the story proper, a set of events unfolds which inflames readers’ impatience to get to the answers.
Readers want to get to Cainsville’s secrets. Yes, yes, we do. (Even if you do not regularly read mysteries and thrillers, the opening scene, like Linwood Barclay’s latest and many of Stephen King’s, pulls on human attachments, hooks readers sharply.)
What makes Omens’ opening scene so compelling is that it begins with a series of recognizable tropes. Even if readers haven’t read another of the author’s works, we know what to make of such things.
Footsteps. A dark hall. A heart pounding. Trying to get away from a man. His relentless pursuit. Breathlessness. Concealment.
But an experienced author can take those tropes and shift them, with a single line of dialogue.
What readers expected? That’s not at all what this scene contains.
Oh, it’s delicious, being strung along like that. Enjoying the bright spot of surprise.
But then, what really makes it fun? Just as readers are enjoying the first surprise, expectations take another turn.
The first one is on readers for falling into a carefully laid trap. But the second is simple plotting. Simple plotting designed to pull readers into a complex story.
The prologue is a mere six pages. It contains many of the elements that readers familiar with the author’s work would expect to find: credible characters, emotional resonance rooted in details, pervasive atmosphere, sleight-of-hand expectations, fear, horror, love. (No sexy encounters, mind you. And only a little of that later on.)
The stormy skies, battlements and the raven on the cover? Not yet present. But soon enough, a mist-shrouded circle of misshapen dead trees, harsh croak of a laugh, long and dimly lit corridors: all there.
The atmosphere is deliciously haunting. But most haunting of all? The way in which readers are involved. Just as we find ourselves in unexpected places in the introduction, willing and then unwilling participants, we are engaged in Olivia’s experiences throughout the narrative. We are a part of the transformation.
“Finally I spun. There was something there – a black shape crouched on the fence of the now-distant park. A chill crept up my spine and I squinted. The shape lengthened, stretching until it became the black cat, languidly arching it back, then settling in on the fence post to watch me.”
First we see a shadow, then a cat. “The world is much more interesting with goblins and plagues.” And, yes, that’s true.
But a good deal of the enjoyment in this narrative rests, as readers might intuit from the author’s note, on the degree in which readers give over to the construction of this tale.
Many of the elements herein are familiar: from the picture-perfect small town and its diner with worn linoleum, to the crack in the veneer of a stressed-but-capable young female narrator.
But if readers are willing to sit back and allow the web to spin, Omens is highly entertaining and, even, flattering. For unlike Bitten, with its tight-and-tidy resolution more than a dozen years ago, it is clear that Kelley Armstrong has a wide storytelling arc in mind for this series. (Not that I’m complaining about Bitten either: it’s one of very few mysteries/thrillers which I’ve re-read.)
No, not a cliffhanger: not that. Just as with the introduction, Kelley Armstrong is at-least-one-step ahead of readers. There is clearly more to Cainsville than readers have even begun to understand, even after spending nearly 500 pages with Olivia. And Kelley Armstrong is willing to allow that to take some time, trusting that readers will wait and might even enjoy that teasing as much as we enjoy the story itself.
The allusions (e.g to Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Bela Lugosi), the string of omens which shapes the narrative (from a shiny penny to upside-down shoes), the meticulously constructed atmosphere, the steady pacing: these elements conspire to make for a good story.
But just as characters might debate the true function of gargoyles, readers might find Omens to be a engrossing entertainment or, with time, they might identify another side to it, might spot something more macabre, like a glimpse of the original bloody and horrifying fairy tales that came before Walt Disney’s prettified versions.
One of the details that I love in this novel is the sensory experience of stepping off a busy street into a library, and I imagine that the author has created for her readers that same kind of quiet, still space.
If we simply step inside, we might see a shadow transform into a cat. But, then, too, there might be blood in the grass where it stepped.
Have you read Kelley Armstrong’s work(s) before? Is this one on your reading list?