Exiled for a murder her father committed, Brigid Cleary has until midsummer to gather what she needs for readmission to her home in the fairy mound: a chest of stolen gold and a chest full of her father’s blood. With nothing but her own wits and an ability to be mostly unseen, she takes a position as a scullery maid in a country manor house, where stealing gold is easy as dusting the candlesticks.
When discovery of her thieving becomes likely, she scarpers, embarking on a madcap season in London. With midsummer fast approaching, Brigid must recoup her stolen gold in any way she can, even if it means modeling for a lecherous pre Raphaelite artist, posing as a young debutante to spy on other debutantes, and forming a clandestine Pugilism Club for Young Ladies.
With gold filling her pockets and her father newly released from prison, the path back to the fairies should be clear. Or would be, were it not for her growing feelings for Edmund, the gentle young lord who hired her to spy on his sister; her burgeoning sense of loyalty and friendship to Adelaide, the sister upon whom she was meant to spy; and the unsettling question of whether she should--or even could--bloodily avenge her mother’s death.
The Revenge of Bridget Cleary is a novel between many genres, touching by moments horror, historical fiction and fantasy, written by Mathilda Zeller, and one of SFPBO9 entries. Inspired by gruesome real historical events (the murder of Bridget Cleary), this book follows her fictional daughter, Brigit, who has been expelled from the fairy mound; all due to the terrible acts of her father.
Brigit needs two things to be readmitted into the court: a chest full of stolen gold, and a chest filled with her father's blood. While getting the second one might be more difficult, the first one is definitely doable, being employed as a scullery maid in a country manor; when her thievery is likely to become discovered, she flees to London, employed as a model for a kinda suspicious Pre-Raphaelite artist.
And well, Brigit's life becomes even more interesting once the young Lord Edmund decides to hire her for spying on her sister, Adelaide. In this position, and with his father soon to be released from prison, returning to fairy's mould starts to be doable; but if something can define the life of our heroine are unexpected things and how she will have to recur to her wit and the help of others.
With this premise, Zeller manages to weave a really interesting and thoughtful novel, really faithful to the historical details; for moments, we could be reading historical fiction. But also, for moments, especially when this novel touches upon the more supernatural themes and the fairy world, gothic horror takes the control over the plot. And while this mashup of genres might be difficult to harmonize, Zeller achieves the perfect equilibrium to please all the tastes.
It also deserves a mention how the chapter titles follow the style of Dumas, working as a small descriptor of the actions that will happen during the chapter.
Brigit is a well crafted character, a girl that is suffering the consequences of others acts, just trying to return to the land she felt as her home; followed by the spirit of Bridget, we will see many interesting discussions, especially when their opinions collide. Difficulties have made her a resourceful girl, but that doesn't exempt her from sometimes taking stupid decisions; and when she falls in love with Lord Edmund, that clear path she had would become muddier.
Some of the secondary characters felt rather plain to me, designed just to fulfill a role, but it's true that once we get to know better out of some of them, like Edmund and Adelaide, they are much deep than I expected at first sight.
During a big part of the novel, expectations are pretty clear even if the way the plot will take to fulfill them might not be clear; but all changes when Zeller introduces a twist in the middle of the book, something unexpected but which put in context, ends making the plot much more hooking.
Superstition and real fairies are key pieces to the plot, as Brigit is persecuted by the fairy hunters; part of her family fears that possibility and won't stop until they "purify" her as they did with her mother. And the fairy court, even if it's kept in the dark most of the time, is at the same time powerful and terrifying, capricious and bloodlusts, putting a weight in the shoulders of Brigit that she shouldn't have.
The Revenge of Bridget Cleary is an exceptionally well written debut novel, which manages to create an interesting story using as the foundation the gruesome murder of Bridget Cleary (and don't worry, the author explains it at the start of the book). I'm certainly in awe of reading more from Mathilda Zeller, because this first book has been impressive.
Mathilda Zeller is also a writer of stories, a reader of books, and a drinker of herbal teas.
She has lived in 18 cities across the United States and Europe.
She has seen a lot of really wild stuff, including:
Goat slaughter, the northern lights, desert lightning storms, and a half dozen children leaving her body.
Her work has appeared in Bottle Rockets, and The Claremont Review, and Mermaids Monthly.
Her debut novel, The Revenge of Bridget Cleary, has been nominated for the 2022 Whitney Awards.