Books: The Headsman by Cristina Mîrzoi

Several weeks back, an independent author named Cristina Mîrzoi contacted me and asked if I would review her book The Headsman, which was published early in 2022 and was available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited.

Doing a little background research into Cristina Mîrzoi led me to discover that she’s a very new, emerging writer, a young Romanian woman who speaks four languages, but mainly reads and writes in English, not only because she finds its “rich vocabulary” (her words) more suitable to expressing herself, but also because many of her favorite authors, such as Ray Bradbury, are American or British. She is very much influenced by dark fantasy, Greek mythology, gothic literature, weird fiction, and fairy tales, and all of those elements are readily apparent in The Headsman.

The book only clocks in at a little over 40 pages, but it packs a lot of uncanny atmosphere and chilling intrigue into such a small space, and this is definitely a story you’ll want to read through a few times, to catch all the intricate details. In form, it reads something like a collection of short stories, but they’re all interrelated, with each story or “chapter” told from the perspective of a different character.

The action takes place, in true Grimm’s fairy tale fashion, in some quasi-mystical, perhaps medieval, village, in no concrete time or place. The first tale, told from the point of view of the headsman—in other words, the village’s executioner—is called “The Witch,” and it describes the headsman’s infatuation with the beautiful wife of the Duke, who he is eventually called on to execute after she is accused of witchcraft.

From there on out, each story fills in more and more particulars about this village and its people, and with each shift in viewpoint (and sometimes in time frame), the reader is drawn further and further into a grim web of deceit and betrayal amongst the townsfolk. None of the characters are ever named; they are only referred to by their station in life: The Flower Girl, The Young Fool, The Merchant, The Big Man, The Duke, The Mother, The Maid, The Servant Boy, The Martyr. There is also no dialogue, as everything is laid out in matter-of-fact, elegant prose, much like a fairy tale or an unsettling legend told around a campfire.

The genius thing about the way this book is presented is that, while each story fragment is quite beautiful, evocative, and magically spooky all on its own, each successive story builds on the last one, so what you learned about the woman selling flowers in the first tale, for example, is rather upended and recontextualized by the next tale, which is told from her perspective. You also learn how the Duke’s wife, the supposed “witch,” ended up in her predicament, and all the other knavery and subterfuge going on behind the scenes of this mean and vindictive little village.

And despite the book’s brief runtime, the language is so concise and descriptive that it feels as though whole oceans of implication and emotion are going on beyond its scant pages, rather like a long-form prose poem. Not a single word goes to waste, and an attentive reader will notice a wealth of clues, reveals, interlinked details, and foreshadowing of events flitting through the lines of text like wily ghosts glimpsed between the trees in a dark forest.

I realize that this review is a bit shorter than normal, but the book itself is so short that I’m hesitant to say any more about it, because I think readers should experience it for themselves. Even though I read it for the first time in less than an hour, it’s lingered in my mind since then, like a creepy but alluring nightmare that I can’t quite shake.

In a February 2022 interview with Cemetery Dance, Cristina Mîrzoi stated that she’s working on another English-language fantasy novella based around a particular fairy tale, and I for one am excited to read more from her, as she has a very singular voice and quite a majestic command of language and mood. I definitely think she’s going to be one to watch in the dark fiction sphere in years to come.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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