Author: Stuart Turton
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Mar. 2019)
Where do I start with this book? It has such great reviews on Goodreads and I was super excited to read it, but honestly every time I picked this up I found myself literally starting to fall asleep after a single chapter. I really can’t explain it, the plot is totally bonkers but for some reason I just didn’t find it compelling. The book did pick up around the 50% mark and I found it a bit easier to read, but it’s so confusing in the first half that it was just painful to read.
The plot synopsis is super compelling though. The story is set at Blackheath Manor, home of the wealthy Hardcastle family. It’s not clear what year the story is set – there’s both cars and carriages in the story so it’s certainly not modern day and had a bit of an old-timey feel to it, with maids, butlers, and footmen. The Hardcastles have invited a ton of guests to the manor for a party, but what they don’t know is that at the end of the night, their daughter Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered, though it won’t look like a murder.
Enter our main character, Aiden Bishop. Aiden wakes up in the body of one of the party guests, Sebastian Bell, with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he got there. Through a series of events, he is tasked with determining who killed Evelyn Hardcastle. The catch is that every day he will wake up and re-start the day of Evelyn’s death in the body of a different guest. He will have 8 hosts and therefore, 8 chances to re-live the same day and solve the crime.
Confusing right? But also, super compelling! Why is Aiden stuck in this body-snatching loop, we have no idea, but the idea is certainly intriguing. Overall I thought this was the most well done part of the book. Did I love the writing or the way the characters were portrayed? No, but I liked how the personalities and quirks or each host influenced Aiden’s abilities and slowly started to take over his mind the longer he was in their body. He moves from the cowardly doctor, to the quick-witted Lord, to the perverted creep, to the clever cop, all of who aid and hinder him in his search for the truth.
There’s a lot going on in this book. I won’t get into the intricacies of the plot, but as you can imagine, with 8 different hosts, plus several rival hosts, and tons of party guests – the cast of characters and sequence of events becomes easily confused. It is somewhat effective to chuck your reader into the middle of story without any preamble, because it helps them to relate with Aiden, who has absolutely no memories prior to waking up as Sebastian Bell. It’s just as confusing for the reader as it is for Aiden. But this only takes your reader so far. If they can’t eventually make sense of the story, it makes for a confusing and frustrating read.
There is a really fine line with mystery novels. You want to trick your readers and leave them guessing, but you also want to give them enough information to encourage them to try and solve the mystery themselves. For me, the most satisfying mystery novels are the ones where I think I have things figured out and then the author throws you for a loop with a killer twist and then totally blows your mind (Alice Feeney’s, Sometimes I Lie, and Riley Sager’s, The Last Time I Lied, come to mind – also pretty much anything by Ruth Ware). Mystery books that give you nothing annoy me. I love a twisted, clever plot, but when it’s too convoluted, I don’t even bother trying to think up what happened and it kind of takes the fun out of it. JK Rowling’s latest book in the Cormoran Strike series suffered from this and I wrote a review for that book about how I dislike the dramatic multi-chapter info-dumps for convoluted plots like this. (I love this series though and the characters! Her latest plot was just a little too confused)
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is definitely a clever plot, I’ll give Turton that. He says in his acknowledgements that he spent 3 years working on this book and I believe it. Any book that looks at the same day 8 times is going to require a tightly plotted story. But there were just too many unexplained details in this book to keep me interested. I do think there’s overdoing it, and for me, this story got lost in the plot. I also disliked how he had Aiden’s different hosts following up on these leads without including us, the reader, in them! Like when Ravencourt starts leaving these random notes everywhere and Rashton was secretly recruiting support to confront Daniel? Turton just sprung those things on his readers without really explaining them. The plot is so convoluted, you can include your reader in some revelations without worrying they’ll solve the mystery. I need some pay-off to follow along with this 450 page book. I don’t want to invest in a confusing mess of a story for this long with no pay-off until the last 10%. Especially if your ending is going to be as f-ed and anti-climatic as this one was (more on that later).
Overall, this book was just too long. We have to read about every single thing all 8 hosts do without even getting any of Aiden’s revelations or clues. I felt like Aiden was getting nowhere with his investigations for 80% of this book and then suddenly he has all the answers? I really wish Turton had taken us on that journey with him. I actually quite liked the story arc with the 19-year old murder mystery and I thought that death was actually easier to solve and we had more clues to work with. But the present day death was a bit of a mess.
The idea of the 8 different hosts was definitely a clever one, but it was pretty painful to read. I’m really unsure what to think about the author or Aiden after reading this book. The fatphobia was disgusting. Can I believe someone would struggle to suddenly be in an obese body? Sure, but we’re supposed to like Aiden and he’s just so fat-phobic when he’s in Ravencourt’s body, it’s awful and I hated him for it. I don’t have a problem with an author writing from this lens if that’s integral to their character (ie, it’s a shitty character and we’re not meant to like them), but because we’re supposed to like Aiden, I place the blame on the author and I really don’t think the fat shaming had any reason to be in this novel. The descriptions were over the top and insulting and went way beyond mere discomfort with a body.
Also, why are none of the hosts women? I mean, thank god none of the hosts were women because I really wasn’t looking forward to reading from the perspective of a man in a women’s body after the mess that was Ravencourt, but like, what are the odds none of the 8 hosts would be women? Seems unlikely. This story was really about men though. The women are all secondary characters and only ever really serve as props to move Aiden’s story forward. This book was published in 2018, like come on, I’m so done with stories with women as props.
But my biggest problem with this book was the flimsiness of the time-travel theory. There’s all kinds of different time-travel theories out there. There’s the “everything is destined to happen” theory a la Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and The Time Traveller’s Wife, where everything that happens in the future is present in the past (ie. future Harry saves past Harry and knows it’s possible because he saw himself do it in the past). In this kind of time-travel theory, you don’t really have any ability to change time. You may not know all of what the future holds, but any interactions with future selves will be the same from both sides of the time travel.
The other theory that comes to mind is the Back to the Future type of time travel, where every action has a direct result on the future, such as Biff going back in time to give himself the Almanac. In this scenario Marty can no longer return to the present because the past has created an alternate future.
I’m going to get into some light spoilers on the type of time travel used in this book now if you want to tap out of the review.
It becomes clear from pretty early on in the novel that Turton is employing the first type of time-travel. Aiden interacts with future hosts and his future hosts also interact with past hosts to ensure the same sequence of events. Presumably his last host creates a compendium of all his interactions that he gifts to Anna because she has a book that she uses in every new life to ensure the days proceed as instructed by Aiden’s future host. I struggled with this type of time travel for this book because if everything is pre-destined, how is Aiden ever supposed to solve the murder? He tries several times to change the day, but ultimately his characters always follow the same course, which makes him a passive player in the whole thing. We learn this is not his first loop inhabiting these 8 bodies and the order of the hosts does change, but it all seems pre-destined to me, so what’s the point. Everyone’s just playing a role for the other hosts and nothing you do is ultimately going to change that.
But where things really get messed up is that he eventually does break the loop. He’s supposed to wake up one of his past hosts in the middle of the night with a message, but he never does, so wouldn’t that make the whole thing collapse? If he never wakes a host up, then it shouldn’t have happened in past host’s timeline. He eventually does appear to follow the rest of the loop, but once it changed I was like, what kind of theory are we following here?? The plague doctor encouraged Derby to give the compass to Bell because otherwise the whole timeline would change, impacting future Aiden, but then he goes and changes it later anyways with seemingly no consequence.
I also thought the ending was weak. I’m going to get into MAJOR spoilers now.
The whole “Blackheath is a prison” thing actually didn’t bother me that much. At least it was an explanation that was somewhat clever. But the whole thing with Anna was poorly done. First of all, despite all their interactions, Aiden and Anna have virtually no relationship. Aiden decides to trust Anna even though she’s done nothing to warrant his trust. His decision to trust her comes before she saves his life, but after he sees her with the Footman attempting to kill him. Why on earth would he trust her after that?? It made no sense. Plus, we have absolutely no sense of who Anna really is because the interactions between Anna and Aiden, while important to the plot, have no character depth or development.
I feel like the author was trying to bring some depth to his story by making it this whole “redemption plot” to move his readers or something. But it was too little, too late for me. If you want me to think Anna is a good person, you should have invested in her character more. You can’t just throw in this bombshell that she’s a horrible murderer at the end of the story and then expect us to buy into her redemption. “It’s okay, Aiden thinks she’s redeemed even though he has absolutely no evidence and can’t remember the 1000 loops that came before, but we should just trust his gut feeling anyways.” NO.
Mostly Aiden was just an enigma to me. Sometimes he was heavily influenced by the personality of his hosts, while other times he was extremely adamant in his morals and feelings. He loved Evelyn based on one interaction with her as Bell, even though all the other evidence from his other hosts indicated she kind of sucked. Also, what was up with Daniel? Now that was a more compelling character, but I didn’t really get how things worked for Daniel and Anna. Didn’t they wake up every day with no memory? I understood Anna because Aiden gave her a book of instructions to follow, but what’s up with Daniel? Would he do the same thing every day or was he different every day? Presumably he had to be the same based on the type of time travel the author employed for Aiden, so wouldn’t he just be doing the same thing for 8 days of every loop? I have no idea really. How did he know about Ravencourt’s letter? Overall, it felt like there’s still a lot of unanswered questions. Why was Bell’s arm all shredded? What happened in previous loops to make Aiden like Anna? Why did the Senior Mr. Hardcastle have to die? How did Aiden figure out who the real Evelyn was? Also, are we just going to skip over the fact that Hardcastle’s response to his artist beating the shit out of his butler is just to string him up in the gatehouse? WTF?!
So that’s my review. It’s long, so I mean, props to the author that his novel did have enough depth to write a review like this, but overall I thought it was flawed. I’m going to give 2 stars because, while I didn’t enjoy the book, it’s undoubtedly clever and original and I think he deserves props for that. Plus, clearly a lot of people really like this book. I wouldn’t recommend this book, but I also wouldn’t be deterred from reading it, except for the fat shaming. That was terrible.