But something about the book continued to gnaw at me, so I went and picked it up again.
Upon second read, I figured out both why I was so disturbed the first time through and why the story had lingered with me long after I’d put the book down. You see, art is supposed to provoke strong emotions, and it doesn’t always have to be positive emotion. That’s what this book did to me: it provoked a very negative emotional response. Not because it was poorly written. Not because I didn’t like the characters, the setting, the plot, or anything in between. Rather, the book simply did its job, and did it very effectively.
Let me break it down.
First, a quick overview: Jesse Teller doesn’t wright pretty, fluffy books. This particular book is about Meredeth Mestlven, a noble lady who was toppled from her secure life and brutalized into insanity (it is worth noting that most of the city’s peerage contributed significantly to said brutalization). After killing her husband, she escapes to live an alternate life for a while, buffered by comforting layers of insanity that allow her to forget her own heinous deeds. But then she returns to the city that was her home. Now calling herself Sob, she returns to her old haunts and begins to exact very creative and ruthless revenge.
This book is not an easy read and certainly not for the faint of heart. The protagonist Meredeth—I will not call her a heroine, for she is not; I’m not entirely sure I can even call her an anti-heroine—is a character so despicable in her deeds that it is hard to care about her at all. Her past is tragic and atrocious, and normally that would make her a sympathetic character. But Meredeth is equally atrocious, in the way she has a knack of viciously murdering every character in the book truly worthy of the reader’s sympathy. For, in her insanity, Meredeth sees even potential allies as foes deserving of vengeance.
Now let’s get to the part where I believe the book shines, and outshines many others in this genre. Jesse Teller is more than a storyteller. Teller is an artist. This book elicits powerful emotions on the full range of the spectrum. From intense feelings of hope to intense feelings of horror and revulsion. Teller holds nothing back. Nothing. Every time I think “No…he’s not going to go there…”
He does. Every time.
And then far surpasses my fears.
His treatment of the psychology going on behind Meredeth’s behavior is handled expertly, and that’s an accomplishment in itself. While its painful to watch, each creatively ruthless murder is the natural and believable result of her deranged logic. It’s like reading an early Stephen King novel—you can see it coming. Dread it’s coming. And when it does come, it is still horrifically shocking. The difference is, while King’s climaxes wax toward creepy and spooky, Teller’s climaxes deliver a gut-punch of disgust and revulsion. Each successive act Meredith commits is infinitely more disturbing than the last. And yet, like any true piece of art, Teller’s work provides a commentary into the complexities of human nature.
Mestlven is unlike any other fantasy I have ever read, and I’ve read some dark stuff. I think the difference is, most works of grimdark fiction only dip periodically into the depths Teller’s characters exist in permanently. Mestlven will not be for everyone. It will appeal to the type of reader who is eager for something different and edgy. Someone with a strong stomach who is not easily offended. Someone who enjoys a strong emotional response to their fiction and loves having their dread realized.