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Posted on 20 Oct 2015 in SFF |

MIKE JONES The Mothers: The Transgressions Cycle Book One. Reviewed by Lou Murphy

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transgressions-cycleThe Mothers is a gripping, cinematically detailed horror story following a fearless 19th-century heroine as she journeys from England to Van Diemen’s Land.

Liverpool, England 1880. Rosanna is a young woman whose mother had died during childbirth. Industrialisation has pushed her shoemaker father into bankruptcy and now he is slaving in a cotton mill where Rosanna seeks him out; but it is dangerous for her to do so. If the company thugs find her they will seek repayment of the debt her father still owes.

Rosanna blends in as a worker within the maze of the factory, where Jones conjures a bleak world of deathly machines, slave labour, and child workers with missing fingers. Discovered by two corrupt workplace autocrats, Rosanna deftly escapes them by fleeing down the factory corridors and sliding under rough machinery. Already we become acquainted with the skills that will enable her to survive this harsh world – she is observant, compulsive and determined. She reaches her father:

… Rosanna held her father’s shoulders, alarmed at the sound coming from his body. She knew that sound when she heard it and the lead of realisation sank into her belly. Brown-lung was the spluttering curse the mill inflicted upon its workers: the poorly ventilated factory forced the cotton dust into the lungs, where it festered into a disease that had no cure. She could feel the gurgling wetness of his lungs and almost recoiled

He tells her that he hasn’t much time left and begs her to escape:

‘… I don’t have long. My time is up. But not yours. This is not your end. I want you to go far away from here. As far as it is possible to go. To the end of the earth if you have to …’

Rosanna tried to protest but his arms tightened on her shoulders and he spoke over her.

‘Promise me you will do whatever it takes to be away from here. Whatever it takes! Forgiveness will follow. No matter what you have to do, forgiveness will follow …’

His words echo in her ears as Rosanna embarks upon a course of action that is often morally repugnant to her. Her journey takes her to a dockside tavern where she opportunistically steals a ticket to board the RMS Perseus. With the ticket in her hand she flees from the tavern, seeking out the vessel that will provide her escape. At the last minute she checks the stolen ticket and realises it is registered for both a mother and baby. She swaddles a stolen parcel of flour in a shawl to look like an infant, and boards the ship, hoping her ruse won’t be discovered. Her third-class ticket relegates her to the lower cabins of the ship, which she discovers is headed to Tasmania.

Hardship interleaves her plight, every decision she makes impacting on her future. Her first encounter with the captain of the ship is delineated with remarkable details:

… Rosanna’s thoughts, speculating on what lay ahead, were broken by the arrival of a tall, lean figure. His face was gaunt and its alarming pale hue contrasted with the black double-breasted coat that hung from his emaciated shoulders, and the black-peaked captain’s hat on his head. The captain looked across the deck of his ship without seeming to focus on anything, his gaze passing over sailors and passengers with an equal lack of acknowledgement. That was until his narrow, sunken eyes fell upon Rosanna. It was as if she felt them more than saw them, but could not look away…

Rosanna realises she can only keep up the charade for so long. Determined not to be cast as mother, liar or thief, she stages losing the infant overboard so that she can instead be regarded as a grieving mother. A heroic protagonist adept at making difficult decisions in the worst situations imaginable, she is endearing with her brave, observant, and often compulsive ways in her determined quest for survival.

She shares a berth with a woman who dies from typhus, and we follow the consequent sea burial. She notes the anomaly of tradition when the captain does not read the service for the dead woman, leaving it to the first mate instead. Later, alone in her berth, Rosanna hears a voice from above deck. Venturing out into the storminess of the night, she discovers that it belongs to the captain. He speaks to the sea:

‘Sailors of old said we should not sail so far that we fall off the edges of the world. We know now the earth is round but there are still edges over which we might fall …’

His utterance proves unexpectedly prescient when the Perseus becomes shipwrecked off the coast of Tasmania. Rosanna is one of the group of survivors on Matron Island, a quarantine station. Here, her initial encounter with the warden is just as impactful as that with the captain had been:

… it was his eyes that drew Rosanna – she could see them clear as day even from where she stood. They were pale and narrow, the pupils like tiny ink dots. They were eyes that saw everything in front of them and yet moved very little. The sky was overcast, dark grey with clouds hanging low and heavy in dim light, yet the man raised a hand to his forehead as if to shield himself from glare. When he spoke, his voice was effortless and yet all who stood in the courtyard heard him clearly.

The shipwreck survivors are segregated by the island authorities, with those displaying the symptoms of typhus separated from the others. A gated compound, Matron Island quickly becomes their prison – quarantine is inflicted on all of them. Rosanna notes the absence of children, but then starts to have strange encounters with them in the darkness of her ‘cell’:

… In the dimness of the light a shape moved across the floor. It was small and hunched but the tendrils of the shadow, accentuated by the long cast of the light, showed human arms and legs: the shadow of a child. Then Rosanna heard a sniff and scratching from her left, from inside the wall. And then another sound, a tapping and a scrape from her right, while the shadow ahead stuttered in the half-light behind her …

Children feature prominently throughout, roughly-hewn shadows that hint at the macabre imaginings of a rambling mind. Are Rosanna’s experiences all real? Warned by a friendly guard not to venture out at night, Rosanna does just that. Not through rebelliousness:

… Rosanna’s actions were motivated by a desperation to not sit and wait, to not be haunted by the scratching in the wall and the silence of her cell …

Her exploration of the darkness uncovers a mysterious secret when she discovers a forbidden room in the heart of the maze of the quarantine station. At this point the story becomes fully-fledged horror. Ritualistic carnage, coupled with the ritualistic deception of history being rewritten, brings to a surreal climax the mystery of forgotten foundlings, mystical apparitions, and the grief of innocence lost.

Mike Jones The Mothers: Transgressions Cycle Book One Simon & Schuster 2015 ebook 272pp $3.99 (Book Two, The Scrimshaw Marionette and Book Three, The Reparation, are also available now.)

Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from