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Coronation of the New Queen of Thrillers: S.J. Bolton

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I'd like to dub a new queen in the realm of thrillers: S.J. Bolton. Bolton's Sacrifice was published in 2008, Awakening was published in 2009, and Blood Harvest came out in July of 2010. Three great novels in three years: I can only hope for more, and on the same schedule. Bolton is an addiction and I want more. The good news is that all her novels can be read again and again, with more to find in each reading.

All of Bolton's novels feature strong and smart female characters, and you could call Bolton's books thrillers for intelligent women. But Bolton's audience cannot be limited: everyone, male or female, will love Bolton. There is nothing not to love. Endowed with the ability to write beautiful prose that packs a punch, Bolton also creates intriguing characters (good and evil), and twists them all together in chilling and clever plots. Her novels are lush with creepy British atmosphere (Bolton draws on her extensive knowledge of British folklore, mythology, and history), heavy with ideas that set the mind humming (fate, destiny, and the roles played by women and men in the unfolding of both), and vibrant with fast-paced action that alternates between subtle and amplified.

Bolton is also blessed with an innate sense of pitch and rhythm. She knows just how long to hold the suspense in an unfurling scene; she knows just how tightly to wind up her characters -- and her readers -- before allowing everyone a moment of release and contemplation. It is the mix between thought and action, a mix calibrated perfectly to engage both sides of the readers' brains -- the analytic side and the thrill-seeking side -- that makes Bolton's novels so gratifying.

In her novels, Bolton plunges into the depths of the human soul and comes up with what is good and beautiful to be found there, and also what is foul and horrible. She is a writer especially attuned to the problems of the outsider struggling to find her place in the world. Bolton's heroines are different, one from the other, but they are all outsiders of firm moral character and strong heart. In fact, Bolton's heroines do what Bolton does: strive for excellence while blazing their own, very unique paths, to doing the right thing, the right way. Bolton does her thing -- writing thrilling novels -- her own way and she does it magnificently.

In Sacrifice, Tora Hamilton discovers a corpse preserved in the peat of her Shetlands Island backyard. This is no bog body from centuries past but a much more recent victim of murder -- and a very sick murder at that. Tora, an outsider to the Shetlands, is told by the police to leave the investigation to them. But the dead woman has recently given birth and Tora, an obstetrician and a woman trying hard to get pregnant herself, cannot let her death go. The only sympathetic ear that Tora finds is of police detective Dana Tulloch, herself an outsider in more ways than one. Together the two women find clues linking the murder to Norse runes, ancient Shetland myths about powerful trolls, and the strange, isolated birthing island of Tronal.

In Awakening, Bolton creates a thriller fully steeped in the Gothic tradition (dark stormy nights, haunted houses, gloomy cellars, decaying churchyards) and tops it off with fascinating information about everything from snakes to religious sects to scripture. Again her heroine is an outsider. Clara is a veterinarian with bad facial scarring who prefers the company of animals to that of humans. But when her adopted village becomes overrun with snakes, Clara is drawn into saving villagers and snakes, and finds herself in very serious danger, not all of it reptilian. With all of that, plus occasional winks of sly humor, hints of burgeoning passion, echoes of lost faith, and acts of great heroism, Awakening is simply a great read.

In Blood Harvest, Bolton inserts a number of outsiders into an isolated Yorkshire village rife with strong but disturbing traditions. One of the traditions, kept secret by all, is the disappearance of little girls. When a number of tiny corpses are found, the new vicar starts to look deeper into the history of his new parish, while a crippled psychiatrist tries to help a young woman of the village who is certain her dead child is still speaking to her. Blood Harvest is the grimmest of the three novels, wiping away any security the characters find in science, religion, love, or family, and leaving everyone vulnerable to terror. But alongside the chilling scenes of human depravity, there are also scenes of great humor -- the flirting between the vicar and the psychiatrist -- and of resounding heroism, making Blood Harvest a moving and wonderful read.

Coronation called for: S.J. Bolton is the thriller queen, writing novels that are smart, scary, and very, very satisfying.