In the midst of a Christmas food coma, I started my first Kindle Unlimited read. Everyone was getting lazy after the big holiday meal, so I wanted something thrilling to keep me awake. Enter Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake, the first book in her recent thriller series. Three months later, I’ve finally finished reading Stillhouse Lake…
About the book: Life is no picnic when you unwittingly marry a serial killer. Gina had two children and a whole life with Melvin Royal before a freak accident put a car through their garage wall and ousted his gory secret hobby. But even after the arrests and trials die down, no one seems to believe Gina is innocent. How could she not have known? How could she not have helped? She changes her name, and the names of her kids. She moves again and again, hiding their identities, installing expensive security systems, using temporary phones and concealing their locations even from her own mother. There are too many threats against Melvin Royal’s family for Gina to be open and honest about who she is. Protecting her kids comes first, always. But after years of running, they’ve finally found a place that feels like home, and Gina starts taking risks again, doing whatever it takes to stop running– even when the murders start again, right outside her door.
“In this moment, in all moments now, I can’t afford to be seen as weak. Not for myself. I have two children in the house, and I’m responsible for their lives—lives that are never safe, never secure. I will do anything I must to defend them.”
Right off the bat, I have to say that part of the reason this book took me so long to read is that I wasn’t enjoying it. I made it all the way to 45% before it stopped feeling like a drag and finally held my interest. I had seen good reviews for this book and I DNF so rarely that I stuck it out through 130 pages that I felt I was mostly hate-reading. That’s a pretty extreme reaction for me, and now that I’m finished I have some mixed feelings about it.
First, I do think it is a fault of the novel that those first 130 pages are stuffed with mainly scene-setting background info. We get a lot of information and small events that are only minimally relevant to the overall story, details that show over and over again how hard it is for Gina/Gwen and her children to hide in plain sight without really furthering the plot. It felt like overkill, and I found it especially annoying because we hear Gina/Gwen saying over and over that she’s gotten paranoid about safety, that she checks and double checks and flees at the slightest provocation and doesn’t trust anyone, etc; but even as she’s thinking all those things, she’s making exceptions. Anyone who reads mysteries/thrillers is going to see those lapses as the catalyst. A careful reader will see right through the excuses and know that something weird is going on and despite all her claims to the contrary, Gina/Gwen is going to get caught in the middle of the chaos because she’s overlooking things that even she knows she shouldn’t be. It all feels so obvious.
And of course, eventually Gina/Gwen realizes her mistakes, about 150 pages after the careful reader does.
“I hate myself for not questioning that.“
“I had good reasons, but those reasons seem useless now. They seem like illusions.“
But I did have to give some credit to that 45% eventually, because there was another detail in those pages that I thought seemed so obvious, that I ended up being wrong about. I appreciated having to second guess myself when Melvin Royal came into the story. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more about the part that surprised me and made me give Stillhouse Lake a little more respect. Once I made it to the second half of the book, I got along with it a lot better.
“There are no good answers, but this time I’m not just going to be strong. I’m hitting back.“
My favorite thing about this book was also my least favorite thing: the perspective. I think that first 45% went so slowly for me because Gina/Gwen is the first-person narrator throughout, and there are so few other characters in that first half of the book to give the reader an idea of what other people think of Gina/Gwen. Seeing how other characters act around the main character (or vice versa) is a big part of characterization, and in the first half of the book Gina/Gwen is so solitary and consumed with her own thoughts and worries that the reader is given a very biased picture of her until some new friends and enemies finally enter the story more meaningfully.
This was my favorite aspect because so much can be done with a narrator who’s so focused on herself, especially if she’s lying or wrong about something. Her thoughts are presented as truths, though they might not always be. A careful reader is going to be looking at the other characters around Gina/Gwen and taking cues from their behavior around her rather than trusting her completely right away. But in this case, the perspective was also my least favorite aspect because Gina/Gwen didn’t live up to her wild card potential. The reader isn’t given enough information and time with the other characters to see what Gina/Gwen is wrong about before she does. It’s no use trying to piece the mystery together before Gina/Gwen, because there’s just not enough to go on until she’s suddenly putting the missing links together right along with the reader.
For that reason, I would call this a slasher thriller rather than a psychological one. It’s not the sort of mind-games novel where the reader is given the clues up front and tries to make crafty connections, it’s just the run-for-your-life-through-the-woods sort of thrill. The clues aren’t all in place until it’s too late. But the action scenes are great; this is some of the best running-for-your-life-through-the-woods drama that I’ve ever read. The characters are gritty and real. The threat feels constant and close. If those first 130 pages could have been condensed into about 50, I would have really loved this book, and I think readers with fewer thrillers behind them aren’t going to have as much of a problem with that slow beginning. There’s a lot to like about this book.
“He also knows that a gun can’t protect you unless you protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and logically. It’s the punctuation at the end, not the paragraph.“
Side note: I don’t have much knowledge about the families of criminals. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief at first about the level of animosity against Gina/Gwen, and especially against her kids. I could see there being a few crazies out there interested in revenge or just a continuation of the gore Melvin Royal started, but I couldn’t believe that they were constantly being targeted by basically everyone. Shouldn’t there be some balance, especially after she’s gone through a trial and been proven innocent? Shouldn’t there be some good samaritans out there as well as all the crazies? Surely someone must see the rest of the Royals as victims?
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I really couldn’t give a higher rating after disliking the first half of the book so much, though I really did like it once the plot picked up. I liked it enough that I’m planning to read the sequel, Killman Creek, which is the only other book in this series that’s already published. I really prefer reading physical books and I’m fairly new to e-reading because of that, but I had a pretty good experience with this one, other than it not being my favorite book.
- If slasher thrillers are your jam, try Riley Sager’s Final Girls. This one’s a bit psychological as well, but the focus is on the knife-wielding and gory deaths. There are more great running-for-your-life-through-the-woods scenes here, and some of the same commentary on targeting victims that Stillhouse Lake dabbles with.
Have you read any good thrillers lately?
The Literary Elephant