Last Updated on February 14, 2024
Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman takes place while the Black Death is ravaging Europe. If the huge outbreaks of plague weren’t enough, civilization is collapsing. The countryside is ravaged by famine, banditry, and a terrified populace. Also, it was orchestrated by Lucifer as an attempt to destroy humanity and perhaps, topple Heaven.
It’s a historical horror novel set during the Black Death. The setting has enough detail to feel alive, and the characters all feel like people of their time, while still being understandable to modern audiences.
A former knight, Thomas Givras, wounded at the Battle of Crecy, excommunicated and disenfranchised, has joined up with bandits for survival at the opening of Between Two Fires. Those bandits find a girl, Delphine, and eat her donkey. Delphine’s father has died and she has been left alone at a farmhouse, easy prey for desperate men. The leader of the bandits decides to sexually assault the girl and without hesitation Thomas kills him and the other bandits. She tags along for protection and he begrudgingly accepts.
I understand if people see the opening with its threat of sexual violence and refuse to read further. I will only note that after the opening sequence it becomes significantly less prominent.
Between Two Fires is structured like a road trip across the European countryside by foot or horse or boat. They get into scrapes, deal with other survivors, some of whom are violent or paranoid. Buehlman alternates this with people who, even as everything collapses, still show kindness. This includes a priest, Pere Matthieu, who joins them. The girl knows they have to travel to Paris and then to Avignon, though she doesn’t know why.
On this road trip, they also come across numerous monsters brought up from the depths of Hell. The book starts with a very historical, grounded sensibility, but as they deal more with supernatural threats the tone of the book changes. The creatures are macabre abominations, with the first monster and The Ones Who Knock by Night being personal favorites.
To engender life had been reserved unto the Lord of Hosts, and the numbers of the alchemy of life had been hidden from the angels.
Yet on the eve of the new war, the fallen under Lucifer had set their hands to the task of creation and tried to bring forth fresh invention; but so far below the Lord were they that they could not quicken any new thing, but only the dead; and they wedded dead flesh together with the souls of the damned and made both live again; and they took the fishes of the sea and river and the creatures of the mountain and woods and corrupted them, made them monstrous in size and quick to do harm; because none of these could propagate, saved by killing, the devil set their hand to each one, working in secret until they made an arsenal of unclean flesh against the day they might release their bestiary into the world of men.
Much of the journey is the slow development of trust as Thomas allows himself to care for Delphine and gains a friendship with the priest. The scenes in which the priest and knight confess to each other are excellent. Thomas and Delphine’s relationship starts with Thomas putting on a gruff face but she senses that he’s not going to harm her or abandon her, and knows she can trust him. Their character arcs flow smoothly and beautifully. Horror works best if you care for the characters.
Rich in detail, with a vivid setting, compelling characters, and several fantastically executed creepy scenarios, Between Two Fires is an absolute masterpiece.