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Book: “Sundial” by Catriona Ward
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Publishing Info: Tor Nightfire, March 2022
Book Description: Sundial is a new, twisty psychological horror novel from Catriona Ward, internationally bestselling author of The Last House on Needless Street.
You can’t escape what’s in your blood…
All Rob wanted was a normal life. She almost got it, too: a husband, two kids, a nice house in the suburbs. But Rob fears for her oldest daughter, Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her too much of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.
Callie is worried about her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely, and speaks of past secrets. And Callie fears that only one of them will leave Sundial alive… The mother and daughter embark on a dark, desert journey to the past in the hopes of redeeming their future.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
You perhaps remember last Fall when I reviewed the supremely hyped horror novel “The Last House on Needless Street” by Catriona Ward. And that while I thought it was engaging and entertaining, I thought that the big twists and surprises were based in kinda cliché tropes that we’ve seen before, and that I called them from a mile away. I wasn’t super concerned about that when I saw she had a new book called “Sundial”, however, as I could tell that Ward has a serious talent for convoluted horror with a lot of misdirection and oddness. So I jumped in one weekend, eager to see if this one would be an experience that was a bit more fulfilling. And oh. It was. It was a fucked up ride but fulfilling it was.
As a reader you are thrown into a very strange narrative when you start “Sundial”. All you know is that you are following Rob a wife and mother who is hiding a terrible backstory, is married to a shithead named Irving, and has two daughters, the softspoken Annie and the weird and morbid Callie, who likes to play with bones and may or may not be talking to ghosts. After a violent incident that involves Callie nearly ends in disaster, Rob in convinced that the wrongness in her is getting out of control, and takes her on a mother daughter trip to Sundial, the compound that Rob and her now absent twin sister Jack grew up on. Which involved animal research, complete isolation from the outside world, and Jack seeing ghosts that weren’t there? Does Ward explain any of this as we are tossed into the deep end? Nope. But all in good time we slowly get to see Rob’s backstory at Sundial, her relationship with her sister and her father and stepmother, and how she ended up in a violent marriage with a kid who has something wrong with her. It’s told in Rob’s present, as well as Callie’s present POV, and through flashbacks to Rob’s life moving up to the present. Ward is so good at keeping things unexplained without making them frustrating for the reader, as I was absolutely muttering to myself ‘what the fuck is going on?’ without getting mad about it. I really liked how it all comes together, and how even in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have predicted how so many things were going to shake out, while still seemingly ‘believable’ within the world we are exploring. It’s a very unique horror tale, and it works.
I also liked the characters in this book, at least the ones that we spend the most time with. And again, I want to emphasize that Ward kind of drops us in the middle of the high stress and strangeness life of Rob and doesn’t feel a need to explain until she is ready. But Rob is such a relatable and interesting character from the jump that it didn’t bother me. Why is she married to this man she obviously hates? What is she so afraid of when she sees how Callie is behaving? And also, why is Callie the way she is? I loved the way that we carefully peel back both of their characters and how nuanced they both were. I’m doing my very best to work in vague terms because it’s definitely best to go in with this muddy situation. But I ended up caring for them both and worrying about them both, even when they are potentially at lethal odds with one another. The fear, anger, and love between them really connects, and makes the read all the more emotional.
My one quibble? A couple of the twists were a bit frustrating to me, and I think I know why. Without spoiling, I’ll try and explain. The first is the most obvious, as it is once again a twist that happens right at the end as one last gotcha. You know that I don’t like this kind of thing unless it is REALLY earned. And actually, it is, for the most part, somewhat earned in this book. But it’s one that still felt a bit like a hackneyed ‘didn’t see THAT one coming moment!’ just for shocks, though not as bad as many are! The other is one of the twists involving Rob’s twin sister Jack, and how it changes some of the perceptions of Rob and her relationships with those around her (honestly, I thought that Jack was the least interesting character of them all, as she functions in tropes that we have seen many times before. It’s kind of too bad that she plays such a huge role in the story in term’s of Rob’s characterization and more, because I found her grating). The effect it had and the fallout that transpired was hard to swallow for me, as, again, it’s the kind of twist that has been done within themes like this before, and it’s one that feels over-explored at this point.
BUT, overall I really enjoyed “Sundial”! Ward has proven herself to be skilled at writing stories with discombobulating plots that eventually come together and make sense, and it worked even better this time around with even muddier waters to navigate. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.
Rating 8: A surrealistic and twisted horror tale about sisters, mothers, and daughters, “Sundial” kept me guessing and kept me riveted.
“Sundial” is included on the Goodreads lists “Horror to Look Forward To in 2022”, and “2022 Horror Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.