Desert Gothic

Darkness descends on the Mojave Desert in the new thriller from critically acclaimed author, Catriona Ward.

Review by Jena Brown

March 2, 2022

In her newest release, Sundial (Tor Nightfire, 2022), Catriona Ward once again weaves a tense psychological thriller that grabs readers by the throat and refuses to let go until the shocking end.

For Rob, suburbia is paradise. Growing up in Sundial, in an unconventional home in the middle of the Mojave Desert, normalcy is all she ever craved. But when her daughter, Callie, starts to behave in ways that remind Rob of the childhood she’s desperate to forget, she knows the only way to protect the future is by confronting the past. To save Callie, Rob takes her to Sundial, where the secrets she’s hidden from her entire life are buried—and waiting for them both.

One of the brilliant strengths of Ward’s writing is how she interlaces hypnotic beauty with quiet dread. As in her previous novel, The Last House on Needless Street, Ward holds her secrets close. Each sentence serves to inform and obscure, giving just enough information to drive the story forward, but not nearly enough to see where it’s headed. She creates imagery that is lush and vivid, bringing a comforting mundanity that dampens the fear, even as disturbing and uncomfortable details emerge within the scene. Her writing is a masterclass in tension, and Sundial is constantly increasing the levels of unease.

This propels the story forward with dazzling speed. Trauma exists in dark, violent moments, but it also lurks in the space between those events. Ward is able to construct characters who rely on each other, even while they seek to undermine and destroy each other at the same time. It’s the quiet hurts, the simmering trepidation, the icy malice that draws the complicated family dynamics into sharp perspective. This is a family that doesn’t trust each other, but who deserves that distrust. Why is a puzzle that only comes together one gut-punch reveal at a time.

As is customary for Ward, setting is not simply landscape, but an important piece of the narrative. Where Needless Street was claustrophobically internal, Sundial sprawls across the open desert. Ward skillfully shows us that while extreme environments can be deadly in ways we expect, open space can trap, suffocate, and kill in ways we never dreamed.

Sundial is a desert gothic story, with the pacing of a tightly woven psychological thriller. Ward explores trauma with nuance and care. There’s never a sense of spectacle or judgement, only heartbreak as characters inflict papercut lacerations of pain and cruelty onto each other in all the ways only family can. Multiple story arcs and timelines offer glimpses into how deep these wounds go, culminating in a seamless and a breathtaking end. Ward forces us to ask dangerous and terrifying questions about ourselves, about family, about humanity, but she never offers easy answers, never allows the characters to take the easy out. In the end, we are forced to recognize that monsters take many shapes, and that we probably all have one living inside us.

Sundial is available now at bookstores everywhere.



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