Bohemia. 1370. A lost soul named Galien leads a band of hardened mercenaries on a mission for Mother Church. But in the dark forests of central Europe, a darker secret awaits. Bestselling author Giles Kristian (Lancelot, The Raven Viking Trilogy) takes us on an unnerving ride into fear and paranoia, bloodshed and redemption.
Last year, I was introduced to Giles Kristian through the amazing Lancelot duology and I loved his wonderful, evocative writing style, gritty way of telling stories and strong character work. As a novella, Hellmouth delivers all of this in a short, sharp shot that captures you from the word go. Which led me to practically devour this!
So, what was it that captured me so? Well – while this undoubtably has many strengths – the atmosphere was the biggest selling point to me. Kristian’s writing is beautiful and engrossing, so you can’t help but get lost in the world of late 14th-century Bohemia. Every scene builds a sense of foreboding and unease – from Galian’s meeting with the cunning Cardinal Cesarini to their gruesome discoveries deep within the Bohemian woods – which gives us as readers a creeping sense of wrongness as the story progresses and the plot unfolds.
The character work that Kristian packs into Hellmouth is quite simply one of the most impressive aspects of this whole book. In 52 pages, or 2 hours and 11 mins for my fellow audiobook peeps, you really do feel like you come to know and understand both our tortured protagonist, Galien, and his motley crew of fellow mercenaries. Every page and interaction builds on previous parts of the story to build as comprehensive an image of each character possible in the limited word count available. I do feel that part of this easy characterization comes from the fact that the disgruntled mercenary/disgraced knight trope that Galien and his crew are centred around is hardly unique. It is a path that has been trudged by many /writersreaders before, but I suppose that makes the fact that they don’t feel cliché even more impressive. Kristian has balanced the familiarity of the trope with unique and interesting personality brilliantly.
If I had a complaint about this book, it is the ending. It felt a little abrupt and anti-climactic, and left me with some questions too. Now, this wasn’t a big enough issue to ruin anything for me (I still gave it 4 stars on Goodreads) as the journey through the story is just superb and kept me enthralled throughout.
A general note on Giles Kristian’s work – what I have read of it anyway – is that he refuses to be pinned into a single genre. Lancelot and Camelot mixed historical-fiction with fantasy wonderfully with you never being quite sure if the magic is real or if it is what the characters simply believe is happening because of early medieval views. And Hellmouth carries on this blurring of lines proudly, with horror being added into the mixture too.
Now, I did listen to Hellmouth in its audiobook format, so I need to give a big shout out to Philip Stevens and his narration. It was top-notch and really brought the whole thing to life, adding even more character and atmosphere. I didn’t want to stop listening at all!
Overall, I have to say I can’t recommend this enough. If you’re looking for something quick to dip into with a major dose of creeping and gory horror; gritty and grey characters, and beautiful prose, then I reckon you will enjoy this.
I’ve never really done a sidenote before, but I feel like the inspiration for this story merits one as this point isn’t to do with the actual story, writing or narration itself, but is cool nonetheless. Kristian mentions it in his author’s note at the end, but the setting very much revolves around the myths and legends of Houska Castle in the Czech Republic. I wouldn’t do any research into it until after you have read this, but it is fascinating and incredibly creepy all at once!