Book Review: The Falcon Flies Alone by Gabrielle Mathieu
Goodreads Description: As the sun rises on a quiet Swiss mountain village in 1957, runaway Peppa Mueller wakes up naked and stranded on the roof of her employer’s manor, with no idea how she got there. As she waits for help, she struggles to piece together fragmented memories of the previous night. Did she really witness the brutal massacre of a local family? Did she kill them? Her fear of sinister house guest Dr. Unruh fuels her panic—as do electrifying flashes of a furious falcon, trapped inside her.
Wanted for murder, Peppa flees the police, intent on finding out if there’s a scientific explanation or if she’s just going mad. Her godfather, world-renowned chemist Dr. Kaufmann, risks his career to help her. In the meantime, Peppa fights her attraction to the handsome priest from India who offers her shelter. With their help, she not only finds Dr. Unruh but places herself at his mercy. His experiments may be the reason Peppa now shares her body with a bloodthirsty bird of prey—but the revenge she plans could kill them both.
My Review: I was given a review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review. There will be some spoilers in this review, but there will be a warning before they come up.
After her father's death, Peppa Mueller takes a job as a caretaker to a wealthy family to wait out the weeks until her 20th birthday, when she can claim her inheritance and move on with the rest of her life. On her first night in a new town, Peppa witnesses a brutal massacre that lands her right in the center of a murder investigation. She doesn't know how to process the things she sees-- the family that suddenly starts killing each other, her new boss, Dr. Unruh, smiling down on the violence, her own hands reaching out to snap a man's neck, or her body transforming into a falcon and soaring high above it all--so Peppa runs from the police, at least until she can find a scientific explanation for what happened to her. She doesn't believe in spirits or the occult, and is willing to bet Dr. Unruh dosed their drinks that night with a psychoactive substance. If Peppa can prove it, she might be able to clear her name as a suspect. But to find the answers she needs, she'll have to find Dr. Unruh and earn his trust so she can get into his lab, and the doctor may not be so easy to fool.
"I'd taken his bait, and the trap was closing."
The Falcon Flies Alone is an incredible story of fantasy versus science, filled with well-balanced characters that flesh out a historical setting from not so long ago. The book takes place in 1950s Switzerland and is filled with fabulous notes from the period, from the Elvis records, the fashion, to the political landscape. There was an intimate way of describing things, making it obvious that the author was very familiar with the time period. Characters throughout made comments that were anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist, but they were authentic to that time period, fit well into the world, and the main character did shoot down those comments appropriately. The differences between cultures were highlighted throughout the book, and it was interesting to see the distinctions made for what was appropriate for Swiss culture and what wasn't. The book is historical fantasy and does an excellent job of really bringing the history alive from start to finish.
As for the characters-- wow! They were all incredibly well-constructed and balanced, fitted with their own sets of flaws, motivations, secrets, and shames. I fell in love with Peppa and Tenzin, and even Dr. Unruh. As a villain, Dr. Unruh was positively evil-- rapist, murderer, sadist-- but also very articulate and charming. The way he rationalized his abuse to Peppa was downright frightening at times, and very convincing. Peppa was smart and strong the whole book through; every obstacle she solved creatively, which made for an interesting read. This made it easy to root for Peppa, as she wasn't just bumbling her way through the plot events. It also made Dr. Unruh even scarier, since no matter how clever Peppa was, he was still getting the best of her.
**SPOILERS, skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled** The whole dynamic between the two is interesting, although I am concerned with the way their relationship developed and ultimately, how Dr. Unruh's death was presented. As I said, Unruh is a deeply sick man, but Peppa is drawn into his charismatic spell and develops a bit of lust towards him, even if she expresses a lot of disgust at herself for it. While she's under the influence, of a drug as well as magic, Peppa and Unruh have sex, which comes across as very date-rapey, especially as Unruh sticks something in her vagina while she's still unconscious. Despite all this, when Dr. Unruh is dying, Peppa is kind to him, even gives him a bit of a prayer with sacred sand as he dies. Honestly, the book did such an excellent job of building Unruh up to be a horrific man that to see him being redeemed in his death felt anti-climactic. I expected Peppa to take revenge against the man who had literally tortured and raped her, and instead the book tried to play him off as a tortured soul. It came off as an attempt to minimize the horrible things he'd done in the name of a redemption. It was disappointing at best, offensive at worst.
The book has some really incredible writing. There were many times where I stopped and marveled at the word choice and the ease with which the author commands language. The book kicks off from the first page with humor and mystery as Peppa wakes up naked on the roof of her employer's, and has to piece together the events of the previous night. The tension mounts and builds at a very steady pace, and the book has well-defined stakes that gets the reader emotionally invested. Even during slower parts of the book, the author was able to uphold the tension to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. The only issue I had with the writing structure is the climax seemed to come too soon. **SPOILERS** Unruh's death was the climax of the book, yet there was still a lot of plot that needed to be resolved. However, those conflicts didn't top the weight of taking out Unruh, leaving the last 20% of the book to feel like a drawn own denouement. The pregnancy, which could have been a big enough conflict to top Unruh's death, had a very underwhelming resolution, which contributed to that feeling.
The book deals with a lot of YA themes-- firsts, coming of age-- but I would recommend the readership as upper YA, even adult. The book deals with a lot of adult themes, but it's the voice and the mature way it's viewed that makes me slot this as an adult book rather than YA. It is heavy at times on the science, which was fascinating, but I could see teen readers getting turned off by the long periods Peppa spends in the lab.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, aside from some concerns. It made for such an enjoyable read with truly awesome characters that stole my heart. I'm definitely looking forward to the next books in the series.
TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A beautifully written period piece where fantasy and science collide.