Headley, a writer of juvenile fiction (Aerie, 2016, etc.) and fantasy, steps into the adult world with this spot-on reimagining of a classic of Old English literature.
Think “mere” as sea, as in the Old English, and not just as some dismissive term. Think of the world as the author of Beowulf did, where sea caves shelter monsters and great mead halls harbor mighty warriors who melt away when the monsters make their way inland. Headley recasts the geography of a place that’s most contemporary, a suburb of cul-de-sacs and playgrounds, meant to be a community but full of people who live their own isolated lives, while up on the bordering mountain of which the brochures boast, strange things are afoot. Willa has her doubts about the planned community of Herot Hall —“I always thought it might be a mistake to leave the back of the houses unfenced,” she frets—and for good reason, for within a cave on the mountain live Dana, a PTSD–scarred returned soldier, and her son, Gren, who are definitive outsiders. Unsocialized, wild, brown-skinned Gren has learned from Dana that Herot Hall is a place of monsters that “tear people from limb to limb,” but Gren is infatuated with Willa’s son, Dylan, who dares play outside and shows no fear. The fraught friendship of the two throws the carefully constructed worlds of Willa, who keeps weekly menus taped to her refrigerator, and Dana, who is never far away from military-grade weapons, into a spin; Herot Hall may be a “toddler empire,” but it is now a place of amber alerts and armed patrols, all courtesy of a combat-ready cop named Ben Woolf. Things do not end well in Herot Hall or on the mountain either: “There are sirens,” writes Headley with lyrical assuredness, “and then more sirens, like God has come down from heaven and called out for every church to lay tribute.”
There’s not a false note in this retelling, which does the Beowulf poet and his spear-Danes proud.