Review: “Thrall,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Very alien
Cons: Not easy to picture; one character
Rating: 4 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s Thrall takes place in the same occult-heavy universe as her Chills and Behind the Door, but the character of Kathy Ryan is not present. Jesse is a young man who left behind his home town of Thrall, New Jersey, a place where strange things happened (a black hole in the grocery store, bleeding nuns, a flood of blood on Main Street). He never thought he’d go back, but he just got a call from his high school girlfriend, Mia, asking him to come rescue her–as well as the daughter he never knew he had, Caitlyn. He’s afraid to go back, but his good friend Nadia agrees to go as his moral support. He’s told her some of these stories about the town and supposedly she believes him, but of course she doesn’t really. The truth is, Nadia wants to be more to Jesse than just a friend, and she wants the chance to learn about his closely-held past. Unfortunately for her, not only are his stories true, but the town is worse than he remembers. Much, much worse. The two join up with an old friend of Jesse’s, Tom, as well as a mailman and a historian, in an effort to find Mia and Caitlyn and get clear of the town.

I’m not fond of the character of Nadia. She whines and pouts, gets jealous of the hold Mia and Caitlyn have on Jesse, and came woefully unprepared. She’s a stereotype, and I’m used to SanGiovanni’s characters having a lot more depth than that. Dealing with her was a bit like hearing nails on a chalkboard.

While Thrall takes place in the same universe as those other two books by SanGiovanni, it’s definitely more alien in aspect. The events in the town are at the apex of their craziness rather than the beginning. The setting and creatures are very alien. While some of the creatures have a certain similarity to those that showed up in the other books, others I found very difficult to picture. It made the book less vivid at times.

The story is very original. I love the explanation for why the town is this way, and the creative contortions Jesse and his friends have to go through in order to find their way out. When the town was founded, the location came with several pre-existing buildings and a handful of unusual statues. The characters do raise the question of how it is they keep finding enough food and supplies to keep going despite the fact that the town has basically been a ghost town for several years, and the answer is intriguing. SanGiovanni manages to subvert a handful of tropes by asking all the right questions.

“Kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing. Did the statues being moved back into public view start the weird stuff happening, or did the weird stuff happening bring the statues back into public view?”

Thrall might not be quite what you’re expecting if you’ve read Chills and Behind the Door. As long as you don’t mind a crazier story that has little of the normal world left to it, that can be just fine!

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