Audiobook Review: The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Random House Audio (February 9, 2021)
Length: 10 hrs
Narrators: Gemma Whelan, Richard Armitage
I’ve been a fan of C.J. Tudor ever since her debut The Chalk Man, and I’ve gone on to enjoy every book by her after that. Still, not gonna lie, there was a nervous moment where I thought this streak would be broken with The Burning Girls! This was a slow-burn of a mystery, one that almost lost me early on, but I’m glad I stuck with it, because the ending revelations were totally insane and sooo worth it.
Our story begins as our protagonist, Reverend Jacqueline “Jack” Brooks, is transferred to Chapel Croft, a tiny old town with a dark history going back to the sixteenth century. During Queen Mary’s purge of the Protestants, eight villagers were burned at the stake in front of the church, including two young girls. Today, residents still commemorate this event with the yearly burning of effigies made from twigs. But that not the village’s only strange tradition. When Jack arrives at her new home with her daughter Flo, they are met with an unpleasant surprise: an exorcism kit, left anonymously along with a message from scripture. “But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed and hidden that will not be known.”
Gradually, mother and daughter attempt to make the best of the situation, starting with getting to know Chapel Croft and its people. Unfortunately, all that seems to do is unearth even more tragic news about the town. Jack finds out about Merry and Joy, two teenage girls who vanished around thirty years ago, never to be seen again. More recently, there was also the suicide of Reverend Fletcher, her predecessor, who hanged himself in the church. Overwhelmed with trying to process this new information, Jack is also struggling to save her relationship with Flo, who is growing into a recalcitrant teenager hungry for more independence. Recently, the fourteen-year-old has been getting herself into more trouble, and Jack suspects that Lucas Wrigley, one of the local teens, may have something to do with that. The young man, who experiences involuntary muscle contractions caused by dystonia, seems relatively harmless, but in a small town like Chapel Croft, people talk, and Jack isn’t sure she likes the stories they tell about Flo’s new friend.
Similar to the author’s previous books, The Burning Girls is an atmospheric mystery with strong suspenseful elements, and maybe even just a touch of the supernatural. You’re by no means going to get the full-on speculative treatment here, but there are definitely some creepy parts that border on horror, like rumors of hauntings and other tales of ghostly sightings on the church grounds. I loved how this vagueness kept you guessing.
Small villages with dark histories are another hallmark of Tudor’s books. As Chapel Croft’s newest vicar, Jack becomes privy to a lot of its stories and secrets. Through her eyes, we meet a parade of residents, including the local gossip who is only too eager to dish on the latest scandal, the town head honcho who is used to getting what he wants by throwing his weight and money around, and of course, a group of bored and disturbed teenagers who decide to make messing with Flo and Wrigley their newest game.
Needless to say, this was a novel that required a lot of setup. On top of the history of the town (the burnings back in the 1500s, the disappearance of the teen girls in the 90s, the suicide of the previous vicar, etc.), there was also the matter of Jack’s own backstory. Our protagonist remains tight lipped about her past, not even confiding in her own daughter, but of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that it has something to do with the mysterious stranger coming after them. His POV chapters would be inserted intermittently between Jack and Flo’s, which made things feel even more confusing as there were already a million other pieces of this puzzle I was trying to put together. The slow buildup made these early sections a tough read, not to mention the frustration of getting too many questions and not enough answers.
Still, I am glad I kept pushing forward, because in the end, we’re talking about just a little bit of work for a lot of reward. Tudor certainly knows how to deliver the goods, and I should have known better than to bet against her. Speaking as a fan of thrillers and mysteries, I think if you’re an avid reader of the genre there’s a chance you might guess some of the twists, but that didn’t make the ending feel any less terrifying or exciting. All that slow ramping up at the beginning really paid off, and I was impressed how everything came together.
Once more, C.J. Tudor proves her masterful skills at crafting an in-depth mystery dripping with atmosphere. The audiobook edition did not disappoint either. Richard Armitage has been a regular narrator of the author’s books, so it’s no surprise he delivered another brilliant performance with his rich and powerful voice. Not to be outdone, Gemma Whelan also narrated beautifully, reading the bulk of the book which was mostly presented through Jack and Flo’s perspectives. Highly recommended for genre fans, and not to be missed if you’ve also enjoyed Tudor’s previous work.