Review: Sundial - Catriona Ward
Published: Viper Publishing, March 10th 2022
My Rating: 4/5 stars
“Kids are mirrors, reflecting back everything that happens to them. You’ve got to make sure they’re surrounded by good things.”
Are you done picking up the pieces of your blown mind after reading The Last House on Needless Street last March? Prepare to have it blown all over again, and stumble around in the dark again by Catriona Ward’s newest release Sundial. An intense, gritty, unnerving psychological horror/mystery hybrid about nature vs nurture, dysfunctional family dynamics and escaping your past. Sundial sunk its teeth into me from the start, and didn’t let up until the final word.
All Rob ever wanted was a normal life, and for a while there: it seems like that’s just what she got. A neat suburban home with white picket fence, a loving husband, two perfect daughters… But the illusion is shattered when a frightening accident reveals a disturbing secret in her oldest daughter’s bedroom. One that proves to Rob what she’s feared for years now: maybe, despite her best efforts, she can’t escape what’s in her blood…
In a frenzy, Rob takes her eldest daughter to her own childhood home Sundial, an remove ranch in the Mojave desert, to make sure the traumatic past she’s buried there will stay buried for good.
What I loved:
- the suspense and mystery
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book kept me up at night because I just had to finish those final pages. I was deeply invested in the mystery, and second guessing every single character ánd myself right up until the final page. After so many predictable mysteries, it feels great to be thrown for a loop by one completely.
- The atmosphere
Perhaps even more so than the mystery itself, the suspense of this story is thanks to Ward’s talent for creating an insidious atmosphere through her writing. By just the right amount of slightly wrong-feeling descriptions, she creates an atmosphere of unease from page one, even before anything remotely scary has happened yet. It’s the literary equivalent of a dissonant soundtrack playing quietly in the background during an otherwise innocuous shot in a horror-movie: nothing scary is happening yet, but your subconscious mind is sensing that something is off.
Add to that a phenomenal sense of setting and you have a recipe for perfect horror-writing in my book. From that quiet unease of an almost too perfect suburban home where a little girl hides some sinister secrets, to the claustrophobia of the desolate ranch and dog farm: I was there alongside the characters.
- The characters
All the aforementioned praise can basically be applied directly to the characters as well. They’re all layered and complex, all of them will throw you for a loop or have you second guess them throughout the story, and you will often doubt your trust in every single one of them. Many mystery novels will have a forgettable secondary cast, just present to facilitate the story. Not Sundial: I was invested and intrigued by every single one of these characters, which is rarer than I’d like to admit.
What I didn’t love:
- Turning the dial to 11
Throughout the novel, Ward often demonstrates her talent for subtle and subdued suspense. Then there are a few moments where she suddenly loses that composure and throws in an overly gory scene or description in, seemingly for the sake of shock-factor. It’s a personal pet-peeve of mine, and almost made me think the author (or editor) didn’t trust the reader to understand the subtler signs given.
Note: I’m not talking about the climax: it’s fine to turn the dial up to 11 for that part. I’m mostly bothered by “early hints”, that didn’t need to be this explicit.
- "That final twist"
I was completely along for the ride with this story and its twists. Right up until the final chapter, I actually thought it was going to stick the landing. Unfortunately, on the last page, the author adds one more twist that, in my opinion, was really unnecessary. It wasn’t quite a dealbreaker, but I wish the novel would’ve ended one chapter earlier.
Additionally, as with any horror-novel: this book contains disturbing passages and subjects, so I always recommend you look into potential trigger-warnings in case you need to. One that I feel is important to mention is violence against- and experimentation on animals, specifically dogs. It’s never gratuitous, but it’s always a tough one for me personally, hence I had to include it in this section.
Many thanks to the author and Viper for providing me with an early copy in exchange for an honest review. Sundial is available from March 10th 2022 in UK- and EU territory, as well as March 1st oversees. Find this book on Goodreads.