Indie Spotlight Book Review: Liminality (The Ancient Ones: Book 2 by Cassandra S. Thompson)
Updated: Feb 1
When I first turned the final page on Cassandra L. Thompson's debut novel (The Ancient Ones), I was pretty satisfied that I'd just read a well-crafted, atmospheric, and very much complete story about the trials, loves, and losses of a pantheon of immortals, rogue gods, vampires and warped creatures in a pretty bloody brilliant bit of gothic story-telling. The villain (and what a villain...) had been conquered, the love story across time, life, and death had been told, and all generally seemed well in the wonderfully dark world of vampires, deities, and creatures.
Sure, there were more stories to be mined from this richly-developed universe, but it felt like further books would act more as sequels, with brand new tales to tell, rather than a direct continuation of the arcs and conflicts presented in the original book.
Now, if this were any other gothic romance/dark fantasy series, you'd half-expect the sequel to do just that. It'd be in a hurry to establish a new story, new villains, new threats and stakes, and maybe self-consciously lean into plot-driven inciting incidents and bang-bang horror or action to try to re-hook the reader, maybe using our tried and true central duo of [SPOILERS] to launch a new tale, with them now fully-formed and reunited, ready to take on whatever the realms had to throw at them.
That would have been fine, maybe even great in its own right, but I suppose what Liminality does that's so refreshing and complimentary of the indie publishing scene, is look those conventions square in the eye and say, "Thanks, but no thanks, chums."
Instead, the author decides to spend the first half of the book largely setting what made the original book such a wonderful experience aside, and hurling us into new time-periods, exploring new characters and pantheons, deploying the same patient, slow-burn pace, and meticulously building up new players and relationships before promoting them to the main cast, adding layers to the book's world and essentially turning a whole bunch of tropes on their head. It takes some guts to trust your readers and the strength of the story to take that kind of narrative and structural risk, where often the story is told out of sequence with details intentionally withheld until the right moment, without fear of losing the reader and instead rewarding them well-constructed character arcs, compelling relationships and sharp dialogue.
It's not until the half-way mark that most of the pieces are in place and the actual sequel, its threat, and the villain start to come into focus, and even then, things are tantalisingly drip-fed, one morsel at a time, with an unrelenting focus on character, their motivations, desires, and their needs ahead of plot and set-pieces. The story is driven by multiple key players now, acting much more as an organic ensemble than the central duo dynamic of the first book, and when the final page is turned on this beasty, it feels like its entire universe has been flipped upside down, and you get this distinct sense of satisfaction that you've read a great, mythical, gothic tale, along with the feeling that we haven't actually seen anything yet and this phase of the story is just getting started.
In the hands of a less capable, assured, or knowledgeable writer, this might have been a disaster, but fortunately for us, dear readers, this one's is in the hands of an author who knows their characters right down to their blood cells, what to do with them, and exactly how to pull a reader deeply into their world, one line at a time, and well, the result is a fascinating, convention-breaking second instalment that makes the world of gods and monsters feel larger and more realized than ever before while retaining an unrelenting focus and intimacy with its characters.
Liminality is the sort of book that kind of makes a mockery of all the famously rigid and tried and true "rules of writing" and "rules for sequels", and forges its own path, doing exactly what it bloody wants to do, when it wants to do it, and with the sort of confident, accomplished, and purposeful writing that makes you wonder if those rules weren't made just to be kicked in the shins to begin with.
If you can't tell by now, Liminality is a fantastic, unpredictable continuation of The Ancient Ones, which manages to stand tall and distinct from its predecessor while also making it impossible not to be excited for what comes next.
It's a great book, a great sequel, and if you liked the first one, or gothic horror, romance, fantasy, or vampires, or stories about rogue gods, doomed romances, broken friendships and unpredictable characters in general... well you should bloody well buy it, shouldn't you?
Or go check out what else Cassandra L. Thompson and her murder of dark fantasy crows have to offer over at https://www.quillandcrowpublishinghouse.com/.