Matt Manochio’s upcoming novel Sentinels is a relentless, action-packed and almost entirely successful novel of historical horror. The story is set in 1873 South Carolina, a small town called Henderson, and focuses on the all-too-real horrors that plagued the southern United States in the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction. The terror that centers on the real world does eventually spin into the supernatural, but never at the cost of derailing the book’s moral and ethical foundation.
Racism is at the center of the plot, with former slave and current land owner Toby, his wife and their infant son drawing the ire of white landowners and the Ku Klux Klan. Toby can’t rightly be called the hero of the story because he’s too complex for classification, which results in him being a character of great depth. His connection to the land he rightfully owns and will do anything in defense of is the central conflict of the novel. Another local landowner will stop at nothing to acquire Toby’s land, starting by offering to buy the land (an offer that is flatly rejected) to physical coercion and attempted murder.
Noah is the story’s main character and lead protagonist. He grew up in Henderson but moved north in his pursuit of an education that will make him a lawyer and as he is living in the north, he becomes a member of the Union Army during the Civil War. His brother, who never left Henderson, is fighting in the War also, though on the side of the Confederacy, which leads to one of the book’s only faults. Not only do the brothers meet on opposing sides of the battlefield, but come face to face as Noah is gravely wounded and his brother is killed. It an unnecessary cliché that does nothing to advance the plot of the book. Without any brother Noah would still have had ample motivation for his actions.
Having returned to his hometown after the War, Noah decides to become a deputy to the sheriff in an attempt to help his hometown. This brings him together with Toby in opposition of the KKK and entwined in a conspiracy with roots deep in Henderson society. While putting their respective families at risk, Toby and Noah work to understand the convoluted politics and social institutions that are threatening Toby, other Freedmen and Freedwomen and the soul of Henderson.
The story is set a few years too many after the Civil War. It’s a small criticism, but an important one from a historical perspective. The power of the Klan and the presence of the army of the Union was much greater in, say, 1870 than 1873. Luckily it’s an issue that doesn’t interfere with the reader’s ability to enjoy the tale.
The setting in place and time (give or take three years) is very successful in all other levels. The reader is easily transported to Henderson, South Carolina in the years following the Civil War. The book’s greatest achievement though is in its pacing as it seamlessly blends characterization, suspense, mystery and almost non-stop action. From the gritty realism of the beginning of the book to the climactic supernatural showdown, Sentinels is a novel that never lets up, always delivers on unfolding mystery and is suspenseful to the last page.