Your enjoyment of Jack Wolf’s The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones will be in direct correlation to your tolerance for the author’s gimmicky writing style. Wolf really wants us to feel that Olde English atmosphere he’s cooking up, and he leans heavily on old-school grammar rules such as capitalizing every noun and the use of arcane spelling (“drippt” instead of “dripped,” for example) to try and sell it.
The thing is, such gimmicks aren’t really necessary to capture the mood and the time period Wolf is trying to recreate. Go read any of the novels in Robert McCammon’s “Matthew Corbett” series and you’ll see that I’m right. Those books are set in roughly the same time period as Bloody Bones, but the only gimmicks McCammon resorts to are exacting research and impeccable storytelling.
So, for me, Wolf’s style here became a distraction, and as a result it took me a while to get into the story – which is shame, because it’s a pretty good story. Tristan Hart is, if not a wholly likeable character, a very compelling one. He’s curious, intelligent, and quite possibly completely barking mad. Much like a certain Doctor Frankenstein, Hart sometimes has a difficult time curbing his enthusiasm for new knowledge and new experiences. His greatest struggle is his attempt to understand his own overwhelming desires. He’s tortured but determined to simultaneously control and satisfy urges he can’t fully explain. It’s the kind of struggle that would be tough to witness in a character you’re rooting for, but Wolf isn’t completely successful in making Hart a sympathetic lead.
Hart’s struggle parallels the world he’s growing up in. It’s a time when new ideas are really starting to hold their own versus the old ideologies that have an iron grip on people in general and society as a whole. It’s heady stuff, and to pull off over 500 pages of it requires a light touch that Wolf hasn’t quite developed. There’s good material here, and Wolf is definitely a solid talent worth keeping an eye on, but he can’t seem to get out of his own way this time around.
My advice to Wolf would be to let the story take over. Stylistic touches can be nice, but rely on them too much and you end up derailing the very thing readers come for – the narrative. The plot. The STORY. In the case of The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones, the story didn’t completely come off the tracks, but it easily could have been a much smoother, more satisfying ride.