Epeolatry Book Review: Sair Back, Sair Banes by Anthony Engebretson


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Title: Sair Back, Sair Bones
Author: Anthony Engebretson
Publisher: Ghost Orchid Press
Genre: Occult/Fantasy
Release Date: 11th May, 2022

Synopsis: A dark shape now stood in those choppy dark waters. A horse. A black one, large as she’d ever seen, with a mane that poured down its neck.
Genevieve hoped a trip to the Scottish village of Fonniskie would help her reconnect. But her vacation turns out to be less than relaxing: the nearby loch holds a dark secret, and Genevieve finds herself haunted by a relentless pursuer whose obsession means he will do anything to possess her—even kill.
Blending ancient folklore with modern alienation, Anthony Engebretson’s eerie debut novella will make you question what it really means to be human.

When you think about Scotland, what comes to mind? Bagpipes, whisky (note the missing “e” in the spelling, the proper Scottish spelling), haggis, castles, lochs, Nessie? Add Kelpies to the list. 

Anthony Engebretson’s Sair Back, Sair Banes delves into the dark, fantastical folklore of these lesser-known, illusive creatures. Kelpies are shapes-hifters, usually disguised as grey or white horses, and they entice humans to take a ride, but once lured, they will ride them into a watery grave, drowning their prey. Sair Back, Sair Banes brings the Kelpie folklore into the modern age.

The title, Sair Back, Sair Banes, stumped me. What does it mean? ‘Back’ might refer to riding on the horse’s back while ‘Banes’ might refer to the Kelpie itself being a source of ruin, but ‘Sair’? I had to look it up, and Google’s Scottish translator assured me it meant sore, and left me even more stumped. Sore Back, Sore Banes? Intriguing.

With an already found love for Scotland, I was thrilled about transporting to a Scottish village called Fonniskie. I’ve seen the quaint housing, small community, and the overwhelming loch, having visited Loch Lomond, the Highlands and Perthshire. So, I found Engebretson’s interview extra surprising (after the complete reading, of course). When he wrote Sair Back, Sair Banes, he had never actually visited Scotland! At the time, he had been tormented about whether to set his novella at an American lake, and I’m glad he decided not to. Fonniskie feels as true-to-life as any other Scottish village, and its isolation contributes to the novella’s events.

On holiday in Fonniskie, our protagonist Genevieve hopes for a relaxing stay. Engebretson hints at many reasons as to why Genevieve comes for her respite. Perhaps it’s because she is honouring her deceased father’s memory, or maybe she is recovering from a back injury, or attempting to move on with her life after her divorce. Whatever the reason, Genevieve is a haunted individual whose presence ripples the loch and stirs the Kelpie out of hiding.

Genevieve is a challenging character to like, but she faces each of the Kelpie’s threats quite heroically. She knows her mind, which makes her powerful enough to repel many of the Kelpie’s advances. Genevieve also appears contradictory, and often prefers to be alone but then moans to herself when she wants company. And she doesn’t want to holiday in Fonniskie, yet forces herself there anyways. As I said, she is a challenge to like or sympathise with.

Genevieve leaves Fonniskie after a tragedy with no intention of returning, but the Kelpies haunt her. Her relationships are, in her mind, overcast with dark clouds. She feels no one will miss her if the Kelpie takes her, and as the Kelpie drown people during her absence, guilt plagues her until she returns to Fonniskie for a showdown. However, she returns armed with knowledge, having researched everything about Kelpies. Engebretson then allows a peek as to why he chose Sair Back, Sair Banes as the title, and I applaud!

The ending delivers many twists—one of which I foresaw, but it satisfied and confirmed my suspicion. Also, Engebretson masterfully constructed the climax with no clear outcome. Engebretson provided suspense and sent chills running along my spine, and I had to remember to breathe.

Sair Back, Sair Banes adds more to the Kelpie folklore than I ever considered. Engebretson’s fresh, horrifying take on the Kelpie as a vicious, obsessed, alienated, immortal soul was spellbinding. As to why the Kelpie singles out Genevieve, Engebretson never gives a reason, frustrating her and me. The author does, however, provoke thoughts regarding what it means to be human, or in the Kelpie’s case, an animal. Engebretson builds up a grim atmosphere in such a short number of pages. Sair Back, Sair Banes flows naturally, flooding me with bleakness while compelling me to continue to read, bewitched by the beauty, the darkness, and its haunter.


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