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Jennifer McMahon – Don’t Breathe a Word

March 23, 2011

LibraryThing Early Reviewers39. Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon (2011)

Length: 448 pages
Genre: Mystery, Fantasy

Started: 08 March 2011
Finished: 12 March 2011

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? Stories about changelings and children being taken by fairies have interested me at least since reading The Stolen Child a few years ago, if not before.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 04 February 2011.

Don’t Breathe a Word will be published by HarperCollins in May 2011; you can get more information or pre-order it here.

Was Lisa kidnapped
by dark fairies, or something
even more nasty?

Summary: Phoebe and Sam don’t talk a lot about their pasts – Phoebe because of her dangerously unstable mother, Sam because of his sister, Lisa. Lisa disappeared the summer that she was twelve and Sam was ten, the same summer that she was obsessed with fairies. She claimed she’d found a doorway to Faerie in a ruined house in the woods behind their Vermont home, and that Teilo, the King of the Fairies, would meet her there and take her away to be his queen. When she disappeared, some people believed that she really had been abducted by fairies, but Sam has always maintained that it was a thoroughly un-supernatural kidnapping. Until now: fifteen years later, when he and his girlfriend Phoebe start receiving notes and calls with information that only Lisa could know. And then strange things start happening that make them wonder if Teilo is real after all… real and coming back to claim his end of some long-forgotten bargains.

Review: There are a lot – a lot – of fairy-related books on the market at the moment. But Don’t Breathe a Word is the first that I’ve read that takes the skeptic’s point of view, and as such, the first that I’ve read that I think would appeal more to mystery/thriller fans than fantasy buffs (although fantasy readers will certainly enjoy its take on the genre conventions, as well).

The book is told in alternating chapters from Phoebe’s point of view, and flashbacks to Lisa’s point of view during the summer before she disappears, and McMahon does an excellent job at ratcheting up the tension in both storylines to a fever pitch, and maintaining it at that level throughout the book. Everything and everyone is just a little shady, a smidge of not-quite-right, a half-degree shift away from normal, that you can’t ever figure out who to trust, or what’s really going on. I absolutely loved the fact that as I read, I couldn’t ever decide whether or not I thought there really were fairies, or if the explanation was something more mundane – both explanations seemed simultaneously completely implausible and yet the only possible explanation. It’s a hell of a balancing act, keeping the reader constantly second-guessing everything they thought they knew, and McMahon pulls it off right through the very last page.

Her prose is not the smoothest I’ve ever read, and there are places where the writing got noticeably choppy or info-dump-ish. Likewise, her characterizations were not always particularly deep or multi-layered, and sometimes the characters seemed to be keeping secrets or acting like jerks for no good reason. But even when I noticed these things, they didn’t really bother me; I was far too hooked by the story. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think if you go in expecting either a straight-up fantasy novel or a straight-up mystery, you’re going to be disappointed. This book vacillates between the two, and if you want a book with a clear genre, that vacillation might be seen as a weakness. But if you’re looking for a book that can flirt with the conventions of both, while using that uncertainty of genre as a means of building suspense, then definitely give Don’t Breathe a Word a chance.

“People see what they want to see,” Sammy had told her earlier, when she was trying to convince Evie and him that the lights in the cellar hole had been fairies.

Maybe Sammy was right – maybe Lisa thought it was fairies because that’s just what she wanted it to be, what she’d been waiting her whole life for.

But what if it worked the other way around?

What if things happened to you – special, magic things – because you’d been preparing for them? What if by believing, you opened a door? –p. 49

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Hotter than hot, no air-conditioning, sweat pouring down in rivers, the Magic Fingers motel bed vibrating beneath her, Mr. Ice Cream doing his thing above.

**All quotes come from an Advance Reading Copy and may not reflect the final published text.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 1:42 pm

    I have a feeling I’d like this one. That cover creeps me out, but in a good way.

    • March 24, 2011 10:07 am

      Kathy – Oh my goodness, I’m glad it’s not just me. This book had to be stored upside-down on my nightstand; I couldn’t stand that little girl staring at me all night!

  2. March 26, 2011 10:34 am

    “What if by believing, you opened a door?” is an excellent line. I would read the book just for that line even if it weren’t the start of the Once Upon a Time challenge. :D

    The uncertainty about the fairies sounds a little like Among Others, which I read recently, and I absolutely loved the way it was able to maintain the deniability of the fairies. Goody, I am ready for another! (But seriously, it must be really hard to maintain both possibilities.)

    • March 29, 2011 9:32 am

      Jenny – In both storylines, but in particular in the flashbacks, I was totally ready to believe it was fairies… but then the humans are all acting so shifty that I was also totally ready to believe it wasn’t fairies. I hope you get a chance to pick it up when it comes out, and that you enjoy it!

      (Also, yes, yes, I get it, I need to read Among Others ASAP. Consider me convinced. :)

  3. July 13, 2011 3:15 pm

    The cover is scary.

    I have a review on my blog for it….It was ok. Very different.


  4. Goddyss Incognito permalink
    August 17, 2011 2:51 pm

    From the get-go, you know that something supernatural is going on because of the parallels between Phoebe’s story and the information you are given about the fairies – the constant presence of the dark man in her dream state and even her reality in some cases, her mother saying “I should have drowned you…” etc. Creatively done story, and I knew where it was headed, I just hoped it wouldn’t end with [Ed: spoilery bits redacted.] Well written.


  1. Review: Don’t Breathe a Word by Jennifer McMahon « I'm Booking It

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