It’s wonderful when you pick up a book with few expectations and then find yourself swept away by it so that you are reluctant to put it down until you reach the end. That’s what happened to me with ‘At First Light’.
I’d expected the book to be good because I had enjoyed ‘Blood On The Tracks’, the first book in Barbara Nickless’ Sydney Rose Parnell series about an ex-soldier turned railroad cop and her service dog, but that was quite a dark and serious book with the mystery wrapped around the causes and effects of PTSD. ‘At First Light’ is also dark, it’s about ritual killings after all, but it is, from the first page, a glorious cinematic entertainment that feels like a striking anime that uses strong lines and a dark palette to create an atmosphere that is one part threat, one part humour and two parts sheer escapism.
I was hooked after only a few chapters. I loved the wit and deliberately dramatic scene-setting. Then there’s the puzzle of the posed dead body showing signs of a ritual killing and surrounded by what looked like Norse runes. What truly pulled me in was Dr Evan Wilding who has
comic book graphic novel character written all over him. A British academic who has tenure at the University of Chicago where he lectures on semiotics, does falconry as a hobby, works with the Chicago police as a consulting forensic semiotician giving meaning to signs, intentional and unintentional, left behind by killers and who is also only fifty-three inches tall. The sight of him going toe-to-toe with an oversized narcissistic anti-intellectual Police Lieutenant made me smile.
The book wasn’t all the Dr. Wilder show. The other main character is homicide detective Addie Bisset, a strong, independent woman who is feeling undervalued by the new Lieutenant who seems not to see policing as a suitable job for a woman. Addie drives a lot of the action in the book. She’s also the reason for Evan Wilding’s involvement, which gave the story a background hum of unrequited affection between the two.
I liked the way that Barbara Nicklass kept a nice balance between the puzzle and the personal. Solving the puzzle involved taking in large amounts of information about Norse mythology, different interpretations of Beowulf, the structure of Norse poetry and a detailed description of the how runes are translated yet all of this was managed in an engaging way that never dragged and was actually quite fun in a nerdy-but-cool kind of way. The personal part was fascinating. The characters were all a bit superhero larger than life but then that’s what I like about superhero stories. Why be subtle when you can be graphically compelling?
But there was more to them than that. They became people who you started to care about and who you could see cared about each other. Barbara Nickless used this to create a slowly building sense of threat. Every time I saw something or someone that Dr Evan Wilding liked, I heard the echo of future loss, of grief waiting in the shadows and wonder whether they would survive until the end of the book.
I had great fun with this. I’ve already ordered the second book in the series ‘Dark Of Night’, which comes out later this year.
Barbara Nickless is an American writer, who describes herself as ‘…made in Japan, born in Guam, and traveled through numerous ports of call to land in Colorado.‘
Before taking up writing in 2016, she worked as a raptor rehabilitator, an astronomy teacher, a piano teacher, an instructional designer and a sword fighter.
Between 2016 and 2020, she published the four books in the Sydney Rose Parnell series of murder mysteries, featuring a strong but guilt-ridden ex-army Railroad Cop and her service dog.
In 2021, she launched her Dr. Evan Wilding series with, ‘At First Light’. ‘Dark Of Night’, the second book in the series, will be published in November 2022.