“Two: If you can’t be invisible, be useful.
Cook huge, hearty meals that make them too full and sleepy to feel like slaughtering you. I’m talking meaty stews, thick casseroles. Heaps of potatoes: no one ever ate three pounds of mash and then went on a killing spree. A bit of bread and hard cheese is not going to keep you alive.”
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I will always prioritise reading a new Melinda Salisbury book over everything else. So when I was offered an early copy to read, I put my other book aside, gave up any thought of sleeping and dove in head first. I was instantly hooked and have been obsessed with it since. The first chapter of Hold Back the Tide is the best opening to a book I have ever read, and you know from how it starts that it is going to be a phenomenal read. If this book wasn’t already on my radar, I’d have picked it up for that stunning cover alone. It really captures the essence of the book.
There is a lot going on in the opening chapters: Alva is trying to manage life with a murderer, nets are being destroyed, there are unusual happenings around the loch, and possibly feral animals nearby. This opener is creepy, it’s tense, and it sets the tone for a truly chilling read. The end of the first chapter made me gasp out loud (entirely unrelated to my asthma).
Alva lives alone with her dad (Lachlan) by the lock. He is the Naomfhuil, keeper of the loch. There has always been one and it has always been a Douglas; they’re supposed to protect the loch, and warn when the water levels fall, but Alva’s dad hasn’t been doing this. He knows that Giles Stewart and his factory is the issue, and no-one wants to be the person to anger Giles. Her dad is also the man who murdered her mother, and Alva lives in constant fear that he will do the same to her. She has plans to leave, but then things start going wrong and Alva has to decide whether to leave, or to stay and protect her home.
Alva is a brave girl. She’s cool-headed, smart and resourceful too. She is the one to discover the dark forces at work in this book, to try to save a town that don’t like her, and that takes a really special person. It’s clear that what she’s been living with is hard, but she’s been practising a long time and is used to fighting her instincts to keep herself safe. She misses her mum terribly, and there are some heart-wrenching moments when she reflects on what she has lost. Her relationship with her dad is complicated, but there is a bit where the two are forced together and open up, and my heart needed this.
I loved her relationship with Murren Ross (Ren). The tension between them is tension of the best kind. Ren is protective of Alva, he knows her well; she doesn’t always like this, but it frequently works in her favour. He gets angry at her sometimes, but by gods does he love her. There is a moment in this book where Alva promises Ren something, and later breaks that promise. It’s such a small moment in such a packed novel, but it destroyed me, and I will never be over it.
There are other good characters in this book too: Gavan (Giles’s son, but we won’t hold that against him), who has clever ideas and contributes a lot to efforts to protect Ormscaula, and Maggie who is lush, caring and fiercely protective of Alva when she needs it most.
This being a Mel book, there are also vile characters, most notably, Giles. He is ruining Ormscaula, his factory is draining the loch and putting everyone in danger, but he doesn’t care so long as he’s getting what he wants. He was obsessed with Alva’s mother, but he treats Alva appallingly. I hated him and there were many times where I wanted to rip him apart and strangle him with his own entrails. when the consequences of his own actions come back to bite him, he seeks to place the blame literally anywhere else. Not all of the hideous creatures in this book are the humans. And I’m not going to say much more about that because that’s treading the edge of spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that every time I thought I had them figured out, I was wrong. These characters raise questions about whether humans are any better than those they perceive to be monsters, and give messages or warnings about depleting Earth’s natural resources for our own selfish gains.
Mel is known for her epic world building, and although the highlands of Scotland are very much real, you can really sense her attention to the detail of the place and making sure everything in Alva’s world was just right. There were parts of the story where I felt like I was in the Scottish highlands with the comforting and creepy stillness and vastness of the landscape. It was perfect. It is a real treat for the senses, and (as with all Mel’s books), I became obsessed with the food on offer. Have I ever had pine candy or birch wine? No, I have not. Do I want them really badly every time I think of this book? Yes, I do. Every single word of Hold Back the Tide is important. Melinda’s writing has always been marvellous, but this it is a whole new level of marvellous. I could lose myself in this book over and over again and always find something new to fixate on.
I expected this book to be brilliant; of course I did, Mel wrote it. I also expected it to be terrifying and emotional, and it was both of these things. It was also so much more than I expected it to be.
There is a moment in Hold Back the Tide, a very specific point (page 94 in the version I read), where everything changes and you can no longer put the book down. Trust me, you either read to some page before 94 and put it down to sleep or eat or whatever, or you read past that page and Mel owns your soul until you turn the last page. There is no middle ground.
I was on edge for the whole book, always expecting something shocking to happen, something horrific. Sometimes it does, other times it’s not what you expect and you get that brief feeling of relief before being plunged back in. This makes for a brilliantly unsettling read with some outstanding jumpy moments. There’s also a hugely unexpected twist and a moment that made me feel like I’d swallowed a lead brick.
You are absolutely not ready for this book. I’ve read this book, and I am still not ready. But you should pick up Hold Back the Tide the moment the opportunity presents itself, and you should read it (you should also message me your thoughts). I adore everything Melinda Salisbury has ever written, but this is my new favourite. I’m even going as far as to say this is (and will be) my favourite book of 2020. Get on it. Immediately.