The people at the meeting, however, need a special kind of guidance. Annie is a Porter, a person who first connects with her troubled clients in dreams, where they are child passengers on a metaphysical train. Each child is paired with a newly-dead-yet-living vessel (referred to in the Guide as a "landlord") to share a body, and together they work to find a "moment of balance": avenging the murdered child's death. Willow, understandably, has some reservations about becoming involved, but Annie is dying, the process is starting to go "haywire", and the group will soon need a new Porter.
There's a great deal to like here, and readers who enjoy dark fantasy and literal soul-searching storylines will find A Guide – which revolves principally around the unsolved murders of siblings Maya and Troy Rummer, and allows the victims to mount their own investigation – very satisfying. Author Sarah Sparrow's sentences flow with a grace and ease that is admirable, and she uses details to build the world of the characters and their inner lives that often provide a touch of poetry during both gritty and divine moments in the book.
That nimble, introspective writing, though, sometimes has a way of stalling the story, especially when it turns into telling the reader about characters instead of showing them through actions and dialogue. The first section of the novel was the most patience-testing, for two reasons. First, there are a lot of characters inhabiting the landscape, and a lot of threads to hold on to, and with so much presented in a flurry of events (including police shootings, child abductions, a death on a hiking trail, and other moments occurring in differing eras) I wasn't sure what to track beyond Willow Wylde's downward spiral.
Second, the actual throughline of the plot – the major dramatic question where the reader knows what the characters' goals will be – happens only about 80 pages in, when the purpose of the meetings, the Landlords, and the Porters are revealed. Until then, there's a lot of reflective writing about characters, which, even though well-written, soon wears out its welcome, as with this passage measuring Willow Wylde's resolve:
The imbalance was… himself. He was his own cold case and didn't have clue one. He wondered if the solution to the crime of Mr. Wylde lay in the idea that hope itself hadn't died – yet – and laughed at the brilliant idiocy of that new notion.
Sparrow touches on some interesting themes, exploring by story's end the relationship between vengeance and forgiveness. The body- and soul-sharing, and the attendant rules both mystical and corporeal, call on a reader's suspension of belief, and I don't think it is too difficult to go with the karmic flow. (It helps that American pop culture, with entries from Here Comes Mr. Jordan to The Lovely Bones, has paved the way for such premises.) A Guide for Murdered Children reads like a First Novel from an ambitious new author, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that would accompany a story from someone with a lot to say but not always the experiential discipline to effectively say it.
Available March 20, 2018 through Blue Rider Press. I received an advance reading copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.