The Secrets of Life and Death

The Secrets of Life and Death

by Rebecca Alexander


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The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive....

In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her...
As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804140683
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 776,321
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

REBECCA ALEXANDER has worked in psychology and education, and has an MA in Creative Writing. She lives with her husband on the coast of England.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Another crime scene, a dead body and possible evi- dence of sorcery. Felix stood in the car park, and watched the activity in the railway station in Exeter. His gut squirmed at the thought of what he would see. He assumed the police became accustomed to seeing bodies, but he never had, despite spending time in Liberia and the Ivory Coast, where human life had become disposable. He pulled his collar up against the rain.

The station was lit by temporary lights on stands, illuminating one of the carriages of a static train. Felix paused at the entrance. The last crime scene he had attended involved an elderly woman stabbed to death, and her yawning wounds had haunted him for weeks. The police had consulted him on some “black magic” graffiti, which had turned out to be the logo of a death metal band. He took a deep breath, blew it out. Hopefully, his involvement in this case would be unnecessary as well.

A movement caught his attention as he walked across the car park. There was a woman standing in the rain a dozen yards from the ticket office, looking through the railings toward the train. She appeared to be watching the police as they worked, but her posture was odd and she didn’t look like a chance spectator observing a tragedy. The rain poured off a hat, the brim sheltering her face, which was whitened by flashes from the scene. She wore a long coat, with water streaming down it, and what looked like boots. She was definitely female; her features looked delicate in a long face, framed by short fair hair that was haloed against the arc lights. She was young, he thought, younger than him, anyway. Her attention to the scene was intense.

He turned away and approached the officer at the gate.

“Sorry sir, the station is closed. There’s a bus to take passengers to the next station.” The policeman had water running from the edge of a cap, dropping in silver lines down the wide shoulders of his coat.

“I was asked to attend. I’m supposed to ask for Detective Inspector Soames.”

“I see. Can I have your name, sir?”

“Felix Guichard. Professor Guichard, from the university.”

The man nodded to another officer, a woman who stared straight through Felix, then looked away.

Felix’s eyes began to adjust to the glare. Through the gate, he could see cast-iron columns supporting the roof of the station, the grandeur somewhat marred by billboards and modern wooden benches. A police barrier obscured the view of the window of one of the carriages. A number of people were walking about in white suits. Flashes lit up one carriage, greening the scene with afterimages.

A bleached figure beckoned to him. “Professor? Professor Gwitchard? Is that how you pronounce it?”

“Well, it’s Gwee-shar. It’s a French name.” A gap appeared in the ranks and he walked through to the white-suited officer.

“DI Dan Soames.” The man’s hand was warm and solid in the drafty, wet station. “We were hoping you could have a look at this scene for us. You’re a professor of what, exactly?”

“My subject is the culture of belief systems, religions and superstitions. I’ve worked with your chief constable before, on a case of a witchcraft killing in London.” Inside he was shivering. Soames was maybe five foot eight or nine, inches shorter than Felix, but had a restrained energy that made him seem like a larger man.

“Well, these markings have us stumped. Any ideas why someone would draw all over a dead kid are welcome. You’ll have to suit up.”

Felix followed him into a tented area where a young man helped him into a one-piece coverall and booties.

“Tuck your hair in, sir,” the young officer said. “We’re still looking for DNA and trace evidence.”

Felix pushed his curly fringe back. A single flash from a camera illuminated an image, which glowed for a moment in his brain.

It was the face of a girl, just a teenager, blond hair stuck to damp glass, over pearl-colored skin. She must have slid down the window, her eyebrow dragged into a curve, and her open eye stared, it seemed, straight at Felix.

Soames’s voice scratched into Felix’s awareness.

“Professor of superstitions and religions?”

“My subject is social anthropology, but I specialize in esoteric belief systems.”

“Esoteric what?”

Felix tore his attention away from the fading image of the girl. “Beliefs outside of a culture’s mainstream. My PhD was in West African beliefs. Witchcraft, sorcery, magic.”

Soames shrugged his shoulders and tucked the hood of his coverall closer around his face. “We’re investigating the disappearance of several young girls from the town.”

“Oh, I see. Is this one of them?”

“Possibly. The thing is, there are symbols—come and have a look. We were told you’ve done this sort of consulting before and attended crime scenes.”

Felix followed him along the platform and into the doorway of the carriage. “A few times. Do you know what happened? How she died?”

“We’re not sure. It looks like an overdose, but it’s too early to tell.”

He led the way toward the end of the carriage where a scrum of white figures was strobed with camera flashes.

“Can we have a look at the body, Jim?” At Soames’s approach, people fell back a little, some to the other side of the aisle, some to the corridor between the two carriages. The faint sour odor of the toilet was signposted with a glowing “Vacant” sign.

Felix squeezed between two officers to look down on the body.

At first, tiny details hit him. Her hand, lying on its back, her fingers curved like a dead crab on the beach. Her lips were distorted by the glass into a half smile, their lavender skin parted to show a few gleaming teeth. The space in front of her was covered with litter left for the train cleaner at the end of the journey. Felix wondered how many people had discarded used paper cups and newspapers on her table, walking past the slumped girl without realising she was dead.

Soames gripped his shoulder. “You OK, Professor?”

“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Yes. You said there were symbols?”

Soames nodded to the man sitting beside the body, and he lifted the bottom of her T-shirt with gloved hands.

Felix flinched as her pale skin was revealed. Red marks criss-crossed her body, and for a moment he thought they were injuries. Then he realized she had been marked with red pen.

“That’s an Enochian symbol.” As the shirt was lifted higher and the slack skin on her belly was revealed, more symbols appeared in two concentric curves. “And that one, too. I don’t recognize all of them. Two circles of what look like sigils.” He bent forward, to get a better look, and caught the flowery scent of clean laundry and the acrid smell of voided urine from the body. Sadness rolled over him, and he looked at her face for a moment. So young. The surface of her eye was just touching the glass, starting to lose its gloss as it dried.

“We’ll photograph them at the postmortem.” Soames stepped back into the aisle, away from the actual scene. “So, what are these drawings?”

“Enochian symbols. They’re supposed to be an alphabet given to John Dee, an Elizabethan scholar. He got them through a man called Edward Kelley, who channeled angels for him.”


“Like a psychic speaking for the dead.” Felix’s mind was flying through memories. The arrangement of the characters in a circle seemed familiar.

“You believe all this?” Soames was staring at him.

“Of course not, but some people do. These symbols are used in ritual magic.”

“Like black magic, Satanism?”

“Colloquially, yes, I suppose so.” Felix leaned in for a closer look. “But black magic wouldn’t necessarily use Enochian sigils, and I can’t see any pseudo-Christian shapes. I think you can rule out Satanism.”


“Designs that are supposed to construct magical intent. Magic talismans and lucky charms sometimes have them.” Felix stepped back, his legs shaky, whether with tiredness or adrenaline he couldn’t tell. “I’ve never heard of them being used in this way.”

“After we photograph them at the postmortem, we’ll let you have a better look. The pathologist says there appear to be more on her back.”

Felix took a deep breath, and stepped out of the circle of gender­less suits gathered around the girl. She glowed in the light of arc lamps, propped over the backs of surrounding seats. Soames followed him.

“You OK?” Soames brushed the hood back from his face.

“Yes, fine. It just seems sad—she’s so young.”

“First thoughts?”

“I’ll wait for the photographs and then do a bit of research. Inspector, are the symbols in complete circles?”

Soames nodded. “We think so; we’ll know more at the post- mortem. It looks like two concentric rings of maybe a dozen or so shapes in each, drawn in some kind of pen. Why do you ask?”

“I’m not sure . . . I think I’ve seen something like it before, that’s all.”

Soames ushered him off the train and started stripping off the white suit. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you to keep this confidential, Professor.”

“No, of course.”

Soames smiled. “We don’t want a big ‘black-magic sacrifice’ headline in the local press.”

“I understand. But there is no evidence, in the UK anyway, of Satanist sacrifices of any kind.”

Soames’s smile faded. “What about that boy, hacked up in London? I hear you were consulted on that one.”

“That was a different kind of case altogether. A Muti killing, taking body parts to make magical charms. Terrible, but from a different belief system completely.” Felix dropped the suit and booties into a bin. “Anyway, you said this case is probably an overdose?”

“Maybe. She was a known drug user and prostitute. But we have three other young women who have gone missing over the last few months. Normally, we trace them to London or they’ve run off with boyfriends, but we haven’t had even a whisper about these girls. No texts, e-mails, no social networking, nothing. Then one turns up dead.”

“Well, get the pictures to me and I’ll do the research. I noticed someone in the car park. A woman, she looked distressed, like she might have known the girl . . .”

“What did she look like?” Soames scanned the station.

“I suppose, medium height, slim, attractive, shortish hair . . .  blond. Striking. Thirties, maybe, it was hard to tell.” He looked across the tarmac, the rain drifting through cones of light onto parked vehicles.

The woman had vanished.

Chapter 2

“t is said that the wolves of the Klaj, or the royal hunting forest of Niepolomice, are the largest in the world, fed as they are upon the great aurochs and bison that dwell there. Also the bodies of peasants, thrown out by cruel masters onto the frozen ground when graves cannot be dug, which has given them a taste for human flesh.

—Edward Kelley Journal entry, 11 November 1585 The Royal Road from Krakow

The darkness was filling the spaces between the trees when the first howl rang out. My horse flinched and tossed her head, I had to cling to the high-pommeled Magyar saddle. The mare stumbled behind the main party, flinching at the echo of the strange sound, neither hound nor man. I looked about me, the cry hung around the black trunks lining the forest road. The horse flared her nostrils, huffing in the cold air, rolling her eyes back at me. Whatever she scented put a judder in her trot. Veils of mist dropped through the canopy. Dew beaded on my cloak and ran off the brim of my hat. I turned in the saddle to look behind me, but the silent trees seemed empty.

Doctor John Dee, my master, sat tall atop a great horse. He was draped about in the cloak given to him by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth herself, at Greenwich palace after Dee had demonstrated necromancy. Another howl, this one more of a shriek, was cut short by a deep rumbling. I jumped, and the nag’s ears flattened onto its sweaty neck.

“God preserve us,” I prayed, clutching the pommel. I resisted the urge to cross myself, clinging instead to the greasy leather. Our rented house in Krakow, my mentor’s wife cooking, the sound of Dee’s children playing, all felt very far away. I longed for Richmond and the library at Mortlake.

Once out of the city, this country closed in on all travelers. No one dawdled on these roads, nor ventured off the track into miles of dense forest. I had long since lost all sense of where we were. Dee was the navigator, keen to add to his collection of maps and charts. We met few people on the road, and they treated us with equal suspicion. The Hungarian Magyars galloped everywhere on shaggy ponies, often with swords in their hands. The Poles traveled in armed caravans, guarding themselves against the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the gypsies and, most of all, the forest. I caught a drop of the mist on my tongue. Winter came early in the mountains of Poland; the rain had the taste of melted snow.

A flicker of movement in the edge of my vision made me lean back in the saddle. In the scrub that separated the forest from the road, blackened brambles shivered and cast silver droplets to the ground. The lead escort shouted to his countrymen with urgency in his tone. They kicked their horses into a canter, Dee’s horse swept along with them as the party rode away from me. I shouted at my steed in good English, then in poor German, but all the rangy mare could manage was a jaw-jarring trot. Then I saw it, a gray pelt sliding between decaying brackens. The wolf—for it was certainly no dog—threw back a long snout over the leaves, and howled with an eerie, halting voice.

The sound echoed between the trees. I could see, in the fading light, Dee’s horse being dragged by one of the bearskinned escorts toward a bend in the track. Dee was looking back, his face and long beard pale against his scarlet cloak, as the wolf loped onto the road. My mount stopped abruptly and only the saddlebow stopped me sliding over its neck. The horse squealed, backing, hooves catching on the road. I saw other shadow shapes oiling out of the undergrowth, hesitant at first, then bolder. They were thin, their bellies arched like siege mongrels, open mouths bloodred in the grays of dusk. I kicked the horse with renewed energy and it was startled into a canter past the wolf before us. Another leapt at the horse’s throat but a cut from my whip made it cringe away. It was then that I felt my seat slide loose on the horse’s back, the girth slack. Perhaps when she had stopped, it had loosened or snapped. The saddle, with both packs tied to it and I perched between them, fell into the road. I managed to land on one foot and to stagger into the crowding creatures, waving the whip. One of the beasts had stopped the mare again, who was now screaming in panic, backing step by step toward me and my protection. She lurched into me, so I lost my footing for a moment. The stumble to one knee brought the gleam of white teeth all around me as they closed in. I lashed out with the whip, and shouted at them in English. A few wolves scattered but then re-formed into a loose circle of gleaming fangs and scarlet tongues.

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The Secrets of Life and Death 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
QueenJody More than 1 year ago
I love fantasy as well as historical novels so I was happy to see the two combined in this book. However it wasn't done in a way that would alienate readers that don't like fantasy. The magic was subtle and believable.
Liela More than 1 year ago
Amazing paranormal-supernatural story. Here you have a story that will move you back and forth between time periods. Terror and symbols and rituals everything thrown at you to get your attention. Characters galore, nothing wrong with that, why? Because they're a pleasing bunch of characters and devoted to one another. Compelling writing to get you in the mood because the mystery behind the death of a young girl and sigil marks only touched a fraction of this fascinating tale. Magic of the sinister kind exist don't you know. I was stricken with a dubious nature that's why the story turned out to be my absolute favorite read, phenomenal to say the least. I decided to not describe more of what I read because it's up to you to read it for yourself to understand this majestic tale. A lot of adoration goes out to the author and her writing style. Word choice and sentence fluency made reading this story easy to follow. I won this book on Goodreads, First Read Giveaway. Thank you, Darlene Cruz
Samantha05 More than 1 year ago
*I received a free copy of this book via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review* Opening with a dead girl discovered with weird cult-like markings found on her body, the reader is thrown head first into a world of secrets, science, and sacrifice. The story is super intriguing, and it carries a Frankenstein/Dracula dark kind of tone to it all the way through. While I'm all for a dark story, I just never connected with this one. One of the main characters, a woman named Jack, is really interesting,and I love her tough attitude. There is just a touch of romance between her and another character that I liked, and they have to face quite a bit of a challenge if they want to be together. I thought the twist with the science/magic markings was awesome. The story alternates between present day and the late 1500s, and the parallel going on between the two was well done. Even so, something just never clicked with me for this story. I liked the characters well enough, and I liked the story. I guess I just wasn't wow-ed. Overall, I would still highly recommend this to adult fiction readers who like a dark and mysterious story to keep them flipping through in the late hours of the night. It wasn't my cup of tea, but I can easily see it being a good fit for others. I still want to keep an eye on other books from this author because I think it just may have been this particular book that didn't work for me.
anneb10 More than 1 year ago
An interesting read, THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH, is set both in the current day and a separate narrative in the late Elizabethan age.  Jackdaw (Jack) Hammond is a "borrowed timer," someone caught on the cusp of death by strong magics and potions and lives on in a sort of half-life that is more than zombie-ism.  Those magics were created by the enigmatic Dr. John Dee and his assistant, Richard Kelley during a trip to Transylvania in 1585.  Those magics change the world, and their consequences stretch all the way to the present day. This was an interesting read - not least because of the unusually sympathetic treatment of Edward Kelley, who is normally portrayed, at best, as a charlatan.  The characters are well drawn and the story intriguing.  There was a section that dragged at about the 60% mark, but the story as a whole is well worth a read.
19269684 More than 1 year ago
So for the first day of the new year, I decided to review a 2-book series. There could be more books, but I haven't found them. The author, Rebecca Alexander, who loves historical fiction, has written two great books: The Secrets of Life and Death and The Secrets of Blood and Bone. The UK covers are so much prettier, but these are fine. Book two definitely looks better than one, but on to the reviews! Picture I love historical fiction- primarily in the UK, so when I stumbled across the follow-up to this book, I had to go backwards and read the first one. The Secrets of Life and Death is about a handful of people, in two different time periods but carrying a mutual interest- extending life. In the past, (Krakow, 1585) Edward Kelley and Doctor John Dee are trying to save the life of the Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. They play with magic and science finding a way to remove the curse that could cause a the loss of riches and land... also their lives should they fail. In the present, (England, 2013) Jackdaw "Jack" Hammond and Professor Felix Guiechard are pretty much doing the same thing. A girl, Sadie, has been given borrowed time. She was supposed to be dead, but is not and that makes her valuable to some people who'd love to have her... For the full review:
StephWard More than 1 year ago
There are times when you read a masterpiece of a book and then attempt to write a review for it. Every word, description, thought, seems unable to grasp the sheer adoration you feel for the novel. This is definitely one of those times for me. I'm not sure what to write in the attempt to reflect my thoughts and feelings towards this phenomenal tour de force. I certainly won't be able to do it enough justice, so I'll say this at the beginning of my review as well as at the end: READ. THIS. BOOK. NOW. I swear you won't regret it and I sincerely hope you find it as magnificent as I did. The plot of the story is, in short, genius. The author takes some of the most intriguing and fascinating topics (in my opinion) and weaves them together to create a novel that cannot be limited by labels or genres. Some of the aspects in the book are alchemy, magic, the occult, Countess Elizabeth Bathory - and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Each of these topics is a favorite of mine - I'll usually read anything that has to do with them. But putting them all together in one story and making a mystery that travels throughout time? Epic. There was no way I could pass this one up and I'm so incredibly thankful that I didn't. The characters were all very realistic - each with their own personality traits, strengths, flaws, weaknesses, desires. I really loved the main character of the story, Jackdaw Hammond. She is a strong female lead for the book and every part of her character is alluring to me. I don't want to do any spoilers, so I'll just say that she's definitely not your ordinary main character in any way. I believe that her afflictions and obstacles that she faces throughout the book make her an entirely new kind of heroine - one that hasn't been seen before. I was able to identify with her right from the start, despite her oddities, and by the end of the book I felt as if I knew her personally. The secondary characters were also well written - both from the past and the ones from the present day. The writing is something I can't possibly try to explain or praise - you'll have to read the book for yourself to understand what I mean. The story jumps between past and present as well as around the globe. It has a fantastic flow and a quick pace that made it so easy to slide into the author's world. The intricate details and vivid imagery throughout the novel, along with the overall dark and gothic feel, was nothing short of perfection. Again, this is from my personal opinion, and I am a huge fan of all things gothic and creepy (which fits this book exactly). I understand that not everyone will feel the same way about the book as I did, which is fine - to each their own. For me, every aspect of this book - no matter how big or small - fit together so impeccably that, as a whole, created a novel of utter perfection. This is by far one of the best books I've ever read and is one that I will re-read several times over. I can't recommend this book any higher to fans of historical fiction, fantasy, paranormal fiction, or readers who like dark subjects such as the occult and magic. As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, if this book sounds appealing to you - drop everything and READ. IT. NOW. You'll be so glad that you did. Disclosure: I received a copy of the book for review through the Blogging for Books program.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jazzie More than 1 year ago
Two compelling stories in two timelines Note: This review contains NO spoilers **I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review** The Secrets of Life and Death was definitely an interesting read. With the interweaving of a present day and a historical setting, it ties the characters and events together. I found it fascinating how Rebecca Alexander created this supernatural and compelling mystery surrounding the stories of an infamous historical figure, namely the Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Although the story progressed slowly, it was interesting enough to keep me reading. This is in no way a quick read. With the immense amount of complex details, I felt like I was transported to both timelines and witnessing it all. With the chapters alternating from the present to the past, it allows readers to see the connections between the events that occur in both timelines. Rebecca's ability to bring to life these characters created an atmosphere of, a glance at historical it fictional. That's the appeal of this book, the realism of the characters and particular the appeal with the supernatural and sorcery. However, one thing bothered me, the romance between Felix and Jackdaw fell short. It seemed forced. The romance seemed like it was just thrown in there, like the book needed it. Quite frankly, I didn't think it did. The mystery, suspense, and the allure of the supernatural kept the story going. Altogether, The Secrets Life and Death is book that historical fiction buffs may enjoy, especially with its twist of the supernatural and magic.
NissaLD More than 1 year ago
4.5 Star read. I read The Secrets of Life and Death in one sitting and it was so worth it. The way it switches from present day to way back in the day has become one of my favorites way of story telling. Rebecca Alexander has a way with words that is hard to describe to describe. She makes you feel the emotions that the characters are feeling, and that's wonderful. The story is centered around Jackdaw Hammond, who's dead or supposed to be dead; and a blood thirsty, Countess Elizabeth Bathory. There's also Felix Guichard, a professor, who is called in to help investigate the death of a mysterious girl at the train station. Throughout the book we learn of what Jackdaw is and people like her and what they become, i.e. Elizabeth Bathory. I can't forget Doctor Dee and Edward Kelley, they are important to the story as well. They, mainly Edward, tells the tell on how Elizabeth became what she was. Which is fascinating, to hear how she became a blood crazed killer in the 16th century.  There is a hint of romance, but it is far from the main focus and it doesn't take away from the story at all, but I definitely was rooting for the couple near the end. This is a book that I can read over and over again, and I plan on to, after I knock down my TBR.  "I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."