The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Salka is a striga who has spent all her life suppressing her second heart, which, if given any power, would turn her into an evil monster. It's their way of life, and the only way to keep their community safe. But when Salka is sent away, it comes down to a matter of survival: continue starving the monster and die or finally tap into her striga nature and live.
The Second Bell is a story of choices - not just the choices Salka has to make, but how the choices of others in their community have direct and lingering impact on her life. As Salka is forced into increasingly limited and difficult choices, she needs to decide if she will continue living within the boundaries of the community that has sheltered her so far, or if she should strike out and make a new way for herself.
This brings us to the question of nature versus nurture. In the striga village, the conventional wisdom is to starve the second heart, the source of both power and evil; yet the most experienced at - and legalistic about - starving their second heart turn out to be those whose choices cause the most harm to others. Are all strigas evil just because they have a second heart? Or is it what they do with the power that they are born with that makes them dark? What if Salka's experience is something totally different? And what if there was a way to tap on to that power and still remain good?
What is the balance between personal responsibility for your actions and the sinful nature of a person?
The story starts off well - Chapter 1 draws you into the history of Heyne Town, Salka's birth, and the stigma around strigas, then jumps 19 years into the future in Chapter 2 to see Salka all grown up. However, Chapters 3 - 6 hits you with a choppy series of POVs that read like a series of short stories that are somewhat related to the plot but not quite. Houston seems to hit her stride around Chapter 7 - whilst we still get multiple points of view, they start to flow together in a cohesive narrative to its heart-wrenching end.
Overall, The Second Bell is an enchanting and thoughtful read.
Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Angry Robot via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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