Brian Catling’s Hollow is a Dark Fantasy Too Smart for Its Own Good (Book Review)

Brian Catling’s latest novel, Hollow, is here to give your Summer reading list a dark, fantastical jump start, though it’s not for everyone.

Summer always feels like a great time to catch up on reading, even as adults who don’t normally get big breaks out of them like we did as youngsters. If you’re a fan of fantasy/horror with a dash of monsters, then you might want to put Hollow from Brian Catling (the Vorrh trilogy) on your list.

Hollow
Written By: Brian Catling
Release Date: June 1, 2021
Purchase (Affiliate Link): https://amzn.to/3zhD2du

The standalone novel takes place during an alternate version of the Netherlands in the 16th century. Otherworldly might be a better description here, however, as Hollow blends the real world with the surreal in some interesting (and frustrating) ways. The elements in the story will have you questioning what’s real as we encounter strange creatures (filthlings), magical oracles, and questions of faith that bring the characters to the edge of Hell itself.

The story weaves together three separate “adventures” that are all related by bigger events going on in the world. Mercenary Barry Follett has brought together a group of vile brigands to transport an Oracle (with exacting and terrifying needs) through the treacherous wilderness of the land. The goal is to get the Oracle to the Monastery of the Eastern Gate, a place sheltered by the Das Kagel mountain and rumored to be the ruins of the Tower of Babel itself.

The Monastery’s own Oracle, whose prophecies help the Church, has died. In his absence, an ever-ongoing war between the dead (literally, it’s a weird thing that’s hard to explain), is beginning to escape the boundaries of the monastery and threatens to upend the world as we know it.

The absence of the Oracle—which turns out to be far more complicated—sparks an investigation by a young monk name Dominic (who is mysteriously struck mute) and his mentor Benedict as a bunch of demonic-seeming creatures emerge across the land. These creatures are malformed and seem to have an unholy intelligence, which helps out a village woman named Meg. She allies herself with these creatures as she builds a “witchy” rebellion against the church’s violent Inquisition.

Sounds relatively straightforward, right? The goal, obviously, is to get the new Oracle in place at the Monastery before Hell breaks loose. The overall story, however, is far less simple than it seems. Rather, it’s a complicated tale that weaves in the absurd in violent/gory fashion along with bigger themes on faith and purgatory in general. It’s definitely not “light” reading and there are a number of dark elements that forced me to have to take a break and dwell on what I read.

I enjoyed the fantasy elements in place and the characters were interesting (albeit fucked up), but it is not an easy book to get through. Catling utilizes heavy erudite prose, and structures the novel in a way that only emphasizes the surreal nature of the story. The pacing is strange to say the least, throwing us flashbacks and to different characters without much warning or preparation. It’s incredibly slow at moments, despite a quick start, with an ending that feels all too abrupt and isn’t wholly satisfying.

Hollow is the type of novel I suspect literary students will have plenty of fun picking apart and diving into its heady themes and writing structure. The problem, however, is that it really didn’t work for me. It’s not a long novel, but the pacing and style meant it took me WAY longer than usual to get through it.

While I enjoyed the story elements in place, the execution of it all left something to be desired. It’s not a prose style I’m particularly a fan of, and feels almost like it’s trying too hard to show you how smart it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who love this style of novel. If that’s you, I highly recommend giving this one a chance. If you’re like me, however, you might find yourself struggling to get through it.