The first of three reviews today as I am once more playing catch up. This is one of the books I got for my birthday, and that I had been waiting to read for months, but unfortunately ended up as one that left with me very mixed feelings.
A group of thrill-seeking friends in search of the perfect wedding venue plan to spend the night in a Heian-era mansion. Long abandoned, and unknown to them, this mansion rests on the bones of a bride, and its walls are packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
Their night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare, as the house welcomes its new guests. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.
It has been a while since I felt so conflicted over a book. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Nothing But Blackened Teeth was a book that I wanted to read ever since I first saw the cover and read the premise for several reasons, one I love Asian horror – admittedly I’ve watched more than I’ve read, but it is my favoured kind of horror. Then there is the fact that I love anything Japanese related, especially where there are ghosts and yokai involved, so I was always going to grab this book. Then there is the cover, which is deliciously creepy – although I will admit I prefer the US cover to the UK cover, although they are both wonderful. So, it looked and sounded like it was right up my street, and in some ways it was…
If I was judging this book just on the writing and the imagery, I would rate it higher. I absolutely loved the descriptions that Khaw used, and she had a real skill for setting the scene and creating the atmosphere – the mansion was practically a character in and of itself, because she brought it so vividly to life. There were a few places where the word choice ventured into the almost pretentious, and certainly a few choices that gave me pause, jarring me out of the flow – but for the most part, I absolutely adored the writing. The imagery was fantastic, drawing on both the horror and the Japanese setting and decoration within the setting, and some of my favourite parts were where the yokai came to life. I would have happily spent many more pages combing through the mansion and reading Khaw’s description.
Unfortunately, I can’t just judge based on that. Firstly, there were the characters. To anyone who has ever watched horror films, especially ones like Scream that play on the character tropes in horror you can see that being done here, and to some degree it does work – and there is a nice twist in the expectation about the ‘hero’ in this book that caught me by surprise and that I did enjoy. The cast here is more varied, with some excellent and natural representation, which is a major plus point and did add another dimension to the story. However, beyond that, the characters fell a little flat for me. Perhaps, it was the length of the book – and Nothing But Blackened Teeth did end up feeling as though it needed to be longer – but it felt as though the characters were rather flat and two dimensional, although there were hints of greater depth that I really wanted to get into because it felt as though I was only ever a step away from connecting with them. Instead, we get the surface of the characters – and it feels as though they are lost in the issues between them, it feels less like we’re following characters, and more like we’re following arguments and unresolved issues, and it falls flat. There were flashes that I liked – I loved the interactions between Lin and Cat for example, and would like to have seen more of those two.
The issues with the characters contributed to my other issue with this book, and that was the plot – or rather the stakes. I could get behind the trip to a haunted mansion, and trying to provoke a ghost interaction, and I could have gotten behind the issues with this group of ‘friends’ if we’d had longer with them. The Ohaguro Bettari which is the main threat here was strange, in places she felt so well integrated into the writing, with some fantastic imagery, and then other places it felt awkward and almost janky, as though there was a disconnect between that aspect and the characters. Again – really it boils down to the characters because it was hard to be invested in the stakes as things started to get tenser. As the book moved towards the crescendo this was more apparent, and there was also a feeling of certain things – like the book with the answers – that felt too contrived and easy, which for me punctured the immersion and tension completely. It was redeemed a little by the twist that caught me by surprise as the conflict peaked – that was a standout moment for this book, but that was then undermined by an ending that felt…lacking.
Again there were aspects about the ending – like the cover-up – that I could buy into, and again I think that with more time and space this could have been improved. Instead, it felt too rushed and too easy and lacking in any emotional intensity. We were being told about grief and guilt, rather than being shown it, and it ended up feeling as though we were watching a sketch where everything was exaggerated and it just didn’t land with me.
I really wanted to live this book far more than I did because I was so excited to get my hands on it at last. I do think that if it had been at least a little longer then it would have worked better, there was a definite need for greater character development in order to raise the stakes, and it felt as though there wasn’t enough time for the aftermath. I will also admit that I would happily spend more time in this mansion, and with the yokai on the move, and with Khaw’s writing. I would probably read it again just for that. However, the characters, the contrived aspects of the plot and the ending just left me feeling deflated at the end.
Have you read this one? What did you think?