Serpent in the Heather Is a Fantastic, Fantastical 1930’s Spy Adventure

Continuing Kay Kenyon’s tale of paranormally powered  spies in the run up to an alternate World War II, Serpent in the Heather, the followup to At the Table of Wolves, reacquaints us with the Talented Kim Tavistock, who has the power to compel people to confess their darkest secrets to her. The half-American Kim, now officially employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service, is eager to use her ability to help England in the looming war. She’s still privately estranged from her father, whom she wrongly believes is a Nazi sympathizer, and still unaware he is also working for the SIS. As German forces flex their muscles, however, a new problem for the world’s “Talents”—who, like Kim, developed extra-normal abilities in the wake of the psycho-trauma caused by the Great War—enhanced individuals are falling victim to a murder streak that runs from Continental Europe and into England itself.

If the first novel set the stage and established the premise of a post-WWI bloom of mutant powers into society, Serpent in the Heather continues to engage with and explore the question of what it means for society. How the world at large deals with this sudden influx of paranormal activity is realistically portrayed, from teenagers forming fanclubs and claiming powers, to fear, denial and shock on the part of many. These social developments exist in the background, as we see see how they affect her characters, both old and new.

Rotating through a cast of point of view characters, including relatively short sections focused on the murderer himself, Kenyon further enriches her fantasy world. Kim remains the anchor; she has grown from the first novel, though she recognizably remains the sometimes impetuous, strong-willed young woman we met there, even as the trails she undergoes in the course of dealing with the murderer change her further. Yet these are fascinating new characters in the mix, in particular Martin, a young man who claims to have a Talent, comes across as a very realistic teenager in an unreal situation. He’s conflicted and under strain in an England in which his powers are not entirely accepted—and which some don’t even believe her possesses.

There are some really neat bits of worldbuilding laced throughout. It makes sense that the real-world 1930s-era interest in sacred stones and sites throughout England is connected to the blooming of Talents across England. The Welsh Castle Sulcliffe, a major location in the book, is invented out of whole cloth, but it, and the terrain surrounding it, feels authentic, and even prompted me to do some research to see if I might visit it someday. This volume introduces an in-world artifact, the so-called Bloom Book, which lists all of the known Talents that have manifested—far more than we have yet encountered on the page. It helps give us a sense of how the residents of this alternate history are trying to make sense of the Talents—not only the how and what, but the why.

The log line for this series promises much to fans of spy fiction, and in terms of its focus on the tradecraft of espionage, this novel delivers. More so than the first novel, which sees Kim stumbling into the world of espionage and learning her way, she begins the sequel confident in her abilities and comparably skilled at her job, and Kenyon hits the beats of espionage fiction from the start. This is a novel fully immersed in the spy world, following twin tracks as Kim and her father make their own attempts to stop the assassin targeting Talents. 

Authors like David Mack (Midnight Front) and Michael Martinez (The MJ-12 series) have also explored the idea of magic and superpowers butting up against the world of espionage (not to mention older works like Tim Powers’ Declare), and the Dark Talents novels rank with the best of them, though by setting her stories before the Second World War, Kenyon distinguishes herself in a burgeoning subfield, exploring an era of rising tensions, and ever-more intricate spy games between the great powers. And it’s not over yet—there’s one more book in the works, Nest of the Monarch, due in 2019. the Second World War is coming to this alternate world, and I’m eager to see how the Talented will change history.

Serpent in the Heather is available now.

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