[I received an ARC of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
Like the first novel in this series, I find this one hard to rate, as I liked quite a few things in it, while sighing at others. Probably my main issue with it was that it introduced plot lines, but didn't really follow them. All the while, the main story *was* a grabbing read nonetheless.
This time, the whole narrative is in Tark's voice, which probably was for the best: I liked the weird prose in the first book, but I'm still not too convinced by 1st-to-3rd person shifts in general, so I tend to prefer when a story sticks to one or the other. Bonus point here. (I've written this in more than one review: having one narrator in 1st person and the others in 3rd seems to be The Trend these past years... and I still don't get why.)
Tark was also much less annoying here. Two years have gone by, he's matured, he's been taking things into his own hands, and while aware of his inherent darkness (since he helps Okiku hunting down paedophile killers and rapists), he also accepts it as part of how their relationship has evolved. Of course, everything isn't perfect, they have their disagreements, and Tark's starting to wonder where the line is to be drawn—is punishing killers enough, or does one have to start killing them before they actually start killing, as a preventive move?
The thing is, I would've liked to see this explored more in the story, as it was a great moral theme. It wasn't, or not more than just for a couple of scenes. Too bad.
Instead, "The Suffering" goes in another direction. Not necessarily a bad one, just... different. It had its share of darkness and scary scenes as well, playing more on abilities Tark developed over the past two years, exorcising ghosts through dolls. Creepy dolls in America. Wedding dolls in Japan, as he and one of the miko from "The Girl From The Well" find themselves trapped in a nightmarish village where a ritual is waiting to be completed. It doesn't help that Tark gets swallowed by this place while there are dozens of people around him, and nobody even notices. That kind of scene tends to both creep me and grab my attention (must be my old addiction for anything Silent Hill-like). And the village didn't lack on the horror side, full of rotting houses, skeletons, old Japanese magic, tragic love stories gone wrong, and murdered girls intent on making trespassers suffer the way they did.
In that regard, this theme was an interesting echo and reflection on what Okiku herself used to be, after her death and her coming back as a vengeful spirit. In this second book, she was calmer, more composed, more attuned to Tark and to what had once made her human. On the one hand, it was good. On the other, she somewhat felt like a side character, in spite of Tark's longing for her presence even after they had fought (also, this time the dynamics was changed, and he had to be strong as well, because the spirits they faced were of an element against which water—Okiku's—was weakest). However, again, what could've been a thematic mirror wasn't explored enough to my taste.
And that's why I can't bring myself to give 4 full stars her: while reading, I kept balancing between "this is great" and "I wish this had been developed more". Add to this secondary characters that were nice to look at, but nothing more, especially Callie, who came along to Japan yet wasn't really involved in anything except for the search & rescue party in the forest. Kendele was an addition I can't really decide about: a good person, genuinely interested in Tark, yet also a plot device for him to realise what Okiku truly meant to him.
Overall, as a ghost story full of old rituals and beliefs, evil ghosts that all had their reasons to be like that, strange forest with a somber reputation, and traipsing along caves in search of the foul source of all that evil, "The Suffering" was a good read. Nevertheless, I think it missed the mark on a few but important elements.
3 to 3.5 stars.