Tombland

By C.J. Sansom.

John Boleyn, a somewhat distant relative of the Lady Elizabeth’s, has been accused of murdering his wife, Edith, by bashing her brains in before sticking her headfirst in some boundary stream with her legs apart. As luck would have it, the woman had been to see the Lady Elizabeth not long before her death.

As a consequence, Matthew Shardlake is dispatched to Nor­wich, accompanied by Nicholas Overton and Toby Lockswood (who has local knowledge), where Boleyn is to be tried. As chance would have it, all the old gang are in Norwich, too, including Jack Barak whose wife, Tamasin, has forbidden him from speaking with Shardlake. Of course, Jack’s too vital an ally for the lawyer not to rope him into his investigation.

The solution to the murder seems to be intractable. For one thing, Edith Boleyn vanished nine years previously, and as a consequence, Boleyn married his mistress, Isabella. Certain local landowners certainly want to see Boleyn dead so that they can acquire his lands to enclose them to graze sheep. His twin sons, Gerald and Barnabas, are certainly vicious psychopaths, and their grandfather, Gawen Reynolds, is a vile, misogynistic sex pest.

Boleyn is tried and convicted by a deeply biased jury, forcing Shardlake to play the pardon which the Lady Elizabeth gave him (along with various injunctions about keeping her name out of the business). Such an application should save Boleyn from being executed, but the instructions to that effect “go missing”, and it’s only through our bent-backed lawyer’s direct intervention that the man survives being hanged.

The investigation into Edith’s murder makes no progress and is derailed for several hundred pages by the Kett rebellion. England has been in a state of uproar with landowners kicking tenants off their land and enclosing it so that they can raise sheep. Because of this, there have been rebellions across the country. Meanwhile, the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, has been conducting a disastrous war in Scotland and generally appeasing the rebels.

When Shardlake leaves Norwich for a time, he gets caught up in the Kett rebellion. Lockswood becomes a high-ranking member of Kett’s entourage, but is not above spreading rumours about Shardlake and Overton (as members of the gentleman class). For a time, Shardlake assists the Ketts with legal matters to ensure their propriety.

In the first battle against the establishment, the rebels are victorious. It is with the approach of the second battle that Shardlake realises who the murderer is, and the murderer realising that Shardlake has guessed, captures him and Overton to use them as part of a human shield of gentlemen. The boys escape and manage to return to Norwich, where they convince they Earl of Warwick that they were only obeying orders.

They then go and confront the other killer, who gets what’s coming to him. Afterwards, Shardlake goes to Hatfield where the teen termagant, Elizabeth, has a hissy fit, throws an ink pot at him, and dismisses him from her service (although Parry assures him that he’ll be serving the girl again soon enough).

Shardlake returns to London where he’s reconciled with Barak’s wife, but has left behind many brave men, women and boys who died fighting for a better life.

I was about 20% or so into the book and wondering why I seemed to have been reading for quite sometime and yet making comparatively glacial progress. Tombland is 880 pages long. Once Shard­lake gets involved in the Kett rebellion, he has little opportunity to investigate the case against John Boleyn and the main plot fades from view, becoming little more than a separate book. When Shard­lake does finally realise the truth, the big revelation is a rather bloodless thing, lacking the drama of “The murderer is someone in this room”.

In a similar vein, the confrontation with the killer’s sidekick is resolved by a third party who also, conveniently, disposes of himself, but by the time the entire affair has been resolved, it’s as if Sansom had run out of steam.

As for the resolution of various problems, I feel that a lot of it was contrived; or cleverly plotted, if you like. At one stage, I was beginning to suspect that Sansom was going to kill Shardlake off, but then he found a way for him to return to the establishment in spite of his clear sympathies for the rebel cause.

Tombland is really two books – Shardlake investigates: The Case of the Inverted Wife and Matthew Shardlake and the Rebels of Mousehold. The latter seems to be an indulgence which contributes little or nothing to what is supposedly the main plot of the book and tends to bury it to the point that any revelations about Edith Boleyn’s killers are met with a mostly indifferent shrug.

Appendix

It’s difficult not to read Tombland as Tom Bland and then expect a picaresque novel about some ne’er-do-well, who’s a decent bloke at heart, but some what undisciplined. [I think that’s the plot of Tom Jones –ed.] Tom Bland would probably be a shorter book. In fact, Tombland is a district in Norwich from the Old English tūmland, which means “empty ground”. Ironically, it was also tomb land, having been used as a burial site during one stage of its history.

 

Limelight

By Emily Organ.

I decided not to bother with the next book in Cogman’s Library series, and instead decided to try Limelight. It, too, will be joining a currently growing list of books in series I won’t be reading any further.

When the allegedly dead actress, Lizzie Dixie, is found murdered, Scotland Yard inexplicably turns to Penny Green, her friend, and an ex-reporter from the Morning Express. She’s none too happy with them because they’re the ones who got her sacked for being right about a previous case, and she’s not going to help them till she’s back in her old job. Well, as luck would have it, the nice Inspector Blakely is able to pull some strings, although when she returns to the paper, the editor, Mr Sherman, tell her that the obnoxious Edgar Fish will take all the credit for the story even if Green does all the work.

Dixie was supposed to have drowned in the Princess Alice disaster of 1878, but one of the other victims was mistaken for her, thus enabling her to escape from her old life with the awful Joseph Taylor.

It seems, for a time, that there’s a Westminster connection because Dixie was also a courtesan, but that turns out to be a dead end.

Meanwhile, someone has been sending Green messages warning her to keep her nose out of the business, and there’s a mysterious, shadowy young man as well, who was seen in the vicinity of Highgate cemetery, where Dixie was murdered.

When Green isn’t busy being the Lois Lane of 19th-century London, she also has some involvement with the West London Women’s Society, which wants her to publish an article about their activities in the Morning Express. It’s through this connection that Green cracks the case, the murderer is revealed, and so is the murderer’s special guest assistant.

The book didn’t start well in that it felt clunky and staccato, but Organ managed to pull out of that nosedive in short order.

It was never made clear why Scotland Yard would approach Green for assistance, and as a means of getting her involved in the case, this was weak. Similarly, when she encountered the mysterious young man in the hotel, she seemed to think that Inspector Cullen should pursue the man on the basis that he could be someone of interest. Later, she’s certain that the young man must’ve been hired by someone in Westminster, although she has no evidence for it.

Although Limelight never quite gets that far, Green is very close to being a huffy female character who thinks that if she says, “I think I saw someone who looks like someone” (and looks huffy), everyone will drop everything immediately because her vague suspicions are the most important thing ever; and possibly even more important than that.

Most of the male characters (Joseph Taylor, Edgar Fish, Inspector Cullen, Mr Sherman, various MPs) are a bunch of asses who need a good smack or so, apart from the agreeable James Blakely who, it turns out, has a potential Mrs Blakely in the wings. There’s more than a little Guardian reader in this narrative. In fact, it might’ve been better if Green had been a reporter for the Manchester Guardian.

This might also have worked better if it was, say, more like the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency of Victorian London, because as I said above, the reason for Green’s incorporation into the was paper thin and ultimately made no difference.

So, that’s enough of this series. Once again, I note that I’m not really the target demographic.

 

The Masked City

By Genevieve Cogman.

After Irene Winters’ apprentice, Kai, is kidnapped, she has to venture deep into chaotic, fae-controlled territory where he’s being held prior to being auctioned off. His abduction was also intended to foment a war against the dragons, which the fae might not be able to win, but which they could use to expand their territories.

After a chat with Kai’s uncle, Ao Shen, the dragon king, it becomes imperative that she recover him or his uncle is likely to obliterate the world where Kai was kidnapped. Fortunately (so to speak), Lord Silver happens to be feuding with the fomentor-in-chief, Lord Guantes, and his wife, and provide Irene with the means to travel to an alternative Venice aboard a train known as the Horse, which is in thrall to another fae called the Rider.

Naturally, Irene gets involved in various hair-raising escapades when she arrives at her destination, but thanks to the power of the Language, she eventually finds her way to the deathly carceri where Kai is being held, and by the skin of her teeth, manages to get him and Vale (who suddenly appeared in spite of her explicit instructions for him to stay away) to the Horse, whom she frees in return for passage home.

Unfortunately, Lord Guantes and his wife are on board, and Irene has to rescue the boys from their clutches in the course of which, she kills the man. Nonetheless, things aren’t looking good because the Horse is still being pursued until Ao Shen himself turns up to see off the pursuers.

Irene has another meeting with the dragon king, who eventually signifies that there will be no war. Her boss, Coppelia, also turns up, and it looks like there’s going to be quite a smacking of bottoms, but there the tale ends.

I’m not sure about this one, from Ao Shen deciding that the world where Kai was abducted should be punished if Irene can’t rescue him (worst motivation ever) to Irene using the Language, exhausting herself in the process, and yet somehow being right as rain a couple of minutes later and firing off another round of reality-manipulating verbiage. I think the sense I have is that it’s all a bit too easy as Cogman is torn between a white-knuckle ride during which if anything can go wrong, it will, and then get worse, and producing a work in which disbelief isn’t suspended well beyond plausible limits.

Two words: comic relief. Cogman could do with some of Jodi Taylor’s tongue-in-cheek style. Another two words: sidekick. [Er, that’s one word. –ed.] Vale turned up like a convenient dramatic moment, but apart from lugging Kai around, he didn’t really have much to offer. A third pair of words: human interest. Irene seems to have more than a passing interest in Kai, but is this ever going to go anywhere, or is she going to be a complete nun about it? At the moment, Irene appears to be a professional virgin. Her background is that she’s the daughter of a couple of Librarians, and that’s about it. For example, Alberich could’ve been an ex-boyfriend instead of something lurking behind the bookcase.

At the moment, there’s too much Irene, and the storylines are a bit too linear. It might help if this was more of an ensemble piece, and there were other perspectives (beyond Kai getting kidnapped at the start).

“Lord Silver looked out into the London smog and wondered what stories he could weave: he himself as the suave hero, with Irene standing adoringly beside him. In Zayanna’s bikini, he thought with a raffish twirl of an imaginary moustache.”

I remain sufficiently curious to see what happens in the next volume, but have something else to read first.

The Invisible Library

By Genevieve Cogman.

Irene works for the Library. She travels to parallel worlds called alternates in search of rare books to add to the Library’s impossibly vast collection. No sooner has she got back from pilfering a book from some posh school than she’s off again, this time with an apprentice called Kai, who’s just a little too handsome for his own good.

The world to which Irene and Kai have been sent is infected with chaos. The fae, creatures born of this, dominate Liechtenstein. Lord Silver, the fae ambassador in London, was chummy (in a stab-him-in-the-back way) with Lord Wyndham, who happened to be in possession of the book which Irene has been sent to recover. Wyndham was also a vampire and happens to have got his head lopped off, allegedly by a cat burglar known as Belphagor. Silver easily detects Irene’s presence in Wyndham’s office as she investigates, and they come to an agreement.

Silver is not to be trusted in the slightest, and things get worse when Irene is sent a message informing her that Alberich, the worst traitor in the Library’s history, is also in the area. She and Kai attend a party which is attacked by alligators before she, Kai, and Vale (the Earl of Leeds, who is also the local Sherlock Holmes) are almost drowned by Alberich. As a consequence, Kai’s true nature is revealed.

Wyndham, they decide, hid the book by dispatching it as part of a consignment, leading them to the office of the now skinned Library’s local man, Dominic Aubrey. With Silver in pursuit, the gang fly across London in a zeppelin to retrieve the book, which they find only for the inevitable confrontation with Alberich, which Irene survives by the skin of her hands. The book itself contains a tale of a child born to a librarian from the Library.

When Irene and Kai return to the Library, Coppelia, their boss, has a new assignment for them. Irene will replace Aubrey as the Library’s representative on the world where they’ve just been.

The Invisible Library is very much an opening salvo sort of book. After the clichéd thrilling opening, it then shifts down into negative gears, making no progress for about quarter of the book. However, once Irene and Kai are on the parallel Earth, Cogman sets weapons to maximum, throwing our heroes into one life-threatening situation after another – homicidal alligators, drowning, werewolves, silverfish … “Did you say ‘silverfish’?” Yes, silverfish. And then there’s Irene’s devious rival, Bradamant, to deal with.

I admit the alligators were silly, and the silverfish (see p. 284 for the main infestation) were ultimately a bit pointless. Alberich was completely villainous, skinning people so that he could have a form in the world, and apt to be delayed sufficiently for his plans to be thwarted.

The one thing that Cogman needs to see to is the italicised vocalisations of read-between-the-lines comments. They might’ve worked better if they’d been sarcastic comments about statements of the bleedin’ obvious, but they felt unnecessarily intrusive.

Unlike the previous two books, I’ve enjoyed this one sufficiently to think the second book in this series is worth trying.

 

London Falling

By Paul Cornell.

For some reason, Rob Toshack and his gang visit a series of houses in London. Part of that are two undercover policemen, Costain and Sefton. As their operation, Goodfellow, is being wound up, they’re making one last attempt to get something they can use to convict Toshack. The man is arrested, but it seems likely that once again, he’ll get away with it. Instead, he says that he wants to admit to everything, and a few moments later, something attacks him, causing his head to explode, causing Quill, the policeman immediately in charge of the op., to get showered with blood.

Quill’s charm-bracelet twirling superior, Lofthouse, has him, Costain and Sefton form a unit a long with Lisa Ross, the analyst who had been supporting them, to investigate Toshack’s inexplicable death.

From going through the data, Ross soon discovers that the culprit is a woman called Mora Losley, who is a witch who kills anyone who scores a hat trick against West Ham. She serves the smiling man and gains power from him by boiling small children alive as a sacrifice. The unit also gains the Sight, which means that they can see supernatural phenomena that are otherwise hidden to the rest of the world.

The police pursue Losley and eventually force her to go on the run. However, she’s also vowed to kill anyone who scores a goal against West Ham, which ends up being an own goal. When she arrives at the ground to kill the scorer, she’s been weakened, and the crowd finish her off.

Toshack’s soul appears before the unit with an offer from the smiling man to remove the Sight on condition that they all agree. Costain declines and the others go along with him. At the end of the book, Lofthouse gathers them together, apparently knowing a little more about the supernatural than she’d originally let on.

This could’ve been a ripping opening to a promising series of books. Instead, Cornell rambles on for pages and pages, annoying the reader with copious quantities of unnecessary waffle. For example, Chapter 7 can be summarised as “Quill, Costain, Sefton and Ross have all gained the Sight and have to come to terms with what they can now see.” Of course, if you want to read the chapter, don’t let me stop you, but this is the sort of book that’s likely to have many readers skimming pages in search of something that advances the plot. Even the epilogue, which should be quite brief, ends up being a novella.

There’s also a certain bloodlessness to the characters. While the Sight disturbs them, they seem to accept that and Losley’s day job without being that bothered about the sudden revelation of the supernatural in London. Or perhaps they are bothered, but Cornell’s prolixity buries that away at the point where the reader is turning pages sooner than they’re reading them.

The story is also unrelentingly bleak. There’s no comic relief here even if Losley’s threat to kill anyone who scores a hat trick against West Ham as have a comical tinge to it. Where’s the scene where Losley goes to the stadium shop to buy the strip, but complains about the wallet-gouging price? Or the scene in which she claims to know what the offside rule is?

Once again, I’m not going to bother with the rest if this is indicative of other books in this series, and I can’t recommend this one, which is a pity because it has some promise which is overwhelmed by too many words.

By the way, if you’re Cornell’s editor, what the hell d’you think you’re doing? Remind the man that brevity is the soul of wit, you clown.

 

The Red Hill

By David Penny.

After attacks and murders in his harem, Abu al-Hasan Ali, the Sultan of Gharnatah and ruler of al-Andalus, asks his favourite physician, Thomas Berrington to investigate the matter. Berrington is assisted by the personable Jorge, a eunuch from the palace. As the pair investigate the killings, they constantly find their lines of enquiry thwarted. Everyone they want to question has been sent to Qurtaba or killed. (The vizier, Tahir al-Ifriqi, even wants to send the pair to Qurtaba.) They manage to find some evidence, but even then, the identity of the people behind the deaths remains unclear. Berrington suspects that the sultan’s general, Olaf Torvaldsson, and the sultan’s Greek wife, Zoraya, are working together. Then he thinks it might be the sultan’s son, Muhammed; or perhaps the vizier; or perhaps the sultan himself; or perhaps Torvaldsson and Zoraya. Or perhaps it was everyone. Anyway, killer is revealed, challenges Thomas to a fight, and is killed, and the boss monster turns out to be the sultan himself, who is forced to abdicate and is banished.

Berrington is yet another character with a Dark Past™. There are the usual hints. He appears to have been a soldier before he was a doctor and appears to have had Dark Experiences™. He has little or no feeling for others (and has little desire to interact with others), which seems partly connected with his infatuation for a girl called Eleanor when he was sixteen. He’s allegedly clever, but isn’t above getting things wrong. At least he doesn’t have some flaw that seriously impedes him such as a hunched back, or lopsided ears, but he is a bit of a cliché.

Jorge, on the other hand, gets on well with everyone, and is the contrastive sidekick. Unlike Thomas, there’s not much back story to him. He was captured by the Moors, pretty, and castrated by Berrington. Hobbies: knobbing concubines, being likeable, and looking fab.

Like Benedict Jacka, Penny can write, but doesn’t handle this plot particularly well. In fairly short order, Berrington declares that Torvaldsson and Zoraya are behind the murders even though there’s no direct evidence. This is a red herring which is too obviously red, and the story might have worked better if Penny had left such a revelation till much later in the book. But later in the book, Berrington is seriously and mistakenly convinced once again that Torvaldsson is the real culprit. If this had been the first time such an accusation had been made, the revelation that the sultan was responsible would have been more dramatic, but by the time he’s uncovered, the reader doesn’t care because of the unfounded accusations that litter the rest of the story.

There’s also one large dangling thread that’s never tied up. In one scene, Berrington and Jorge are hauled in for a chat with Faris al-Rashid and his friends (all named, but all just cardboard cutouts), but nothing ever comes of it, and no explanation is offered as to whom these men support – the sultan or Muhammed? They seem to know more than they’re saying, but could’ve been edited out without any great loss to the plot.

There are other books in the series, but I’m not tempted.

 

The Poisoned Pilgrim

By Oliver Pötzsch.

Simon and Magdalena have gone on a pilgrimage to the Andechs monastery along with various others from Schongau. But before you can say, “In nomine patri, et filii, et spiritui sancti”, Magdalena has spotted a light in the belfry of the church and must absolutely stick her nose in so that she can take part in the book’s first Dramatic Moment™.

And not too long after, a couple of monks turn up dead. The culprit is soon fingered, another monk, who, as it turns out, is an old friend of Jakob Kuisl’s from the war. And that’s how Kuisl ends up in Andechs, snooping around disguised as a monk. Oh, and he takes his grandsons with him so that the boss monster will have a hostage or two for a Dramatic Moment™.

Meanwhile, there’s some mysterious affliction going around and Simon, who’s the only doctor in the house, is up to his arms in patients with spotty tongues.

By now you’re probably wondering whether Simon and Magdalena are on the verge of getting divorced since they’re squabbled in the previous two books. Fear not, reader, you shan’t be disappointed. This time the love rival is Matthias, the handsome, mute knacker’s assistant, who stands high in Magdalena’s estimation because he pays attention to the children, while she rages that Simon is insufficiently involved in the domestic sphere. However, the moment he’s in danger later in the book, Magdalena is off in hot pursuit, his previous failings and shortcomings forgotten.

Things haven’t ended well for previous love rivals. Benedikta Koppmeyer (or whatever her real name is) was unmasked as a bandit, and Silvio Contarini was unmasked as a secret agent for the Turks, hellbent on getting everyone in Augsburg stoned on contaminated bread. Does it end any better for Matthias? Does he end up being the villain’s assistant? You’ll have to read the book to find out whether he gets pushed from the bell tower of the church, surviving just long enough to write some messages to Magdalena.

Everything’s sorted out. The boss monster turns out to be a monk who wants to play Dr Frankenstein (“Copyright violation!” squeaked Mary Shelley. Don’t worry, meine Liebchen, it predates Dr Frankenstein by about 150 years. Uncle Adolf says, ‘Keine Copyright Violation’). The disease gives Simon some leverage against the Semers, and some influence with the Count of Wittelsbach after he cures the man’s son.

Pötzsch is getting a bit repetitious with the squabbling between Simon and Magdalena, the inevitable love rival (who like the guest star in murder mysteries, is always a villain), the flimsy excuses for one or other of the main characters to join the other two, and the flimsy excuses excusing their transgressions. This is essentially telly-style writing, but where another author might find some way to unite the various strands of the plot, Pötzsch’s efforts often sound contrived.

Magdalena has become increasingly annoying. She’s written as if she fell through a hole in the space-time continuum from the 21st century and ended up in the 17th. I suppose she’s meant to be a strong female character, but comes across as oblivious (she seems exempt from the social niceties of the age) and self-centred. She’d be no less annoying if she was demure and obedient, but she needs to be dialled down a few notches. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done so that trying to make Magdalena less annoying would be irksomely noticeable.

The story is decent enough, but I think it’s time to look elsewhere for something to read.

What’s in a name?

The title of the book is baffling because while many pilgrims end up suffering from food poisoning, and a monk or two are fried in phosphorus, there are no individual poisonings per se. Possibly it refers to Simon being paralysed by some concoction from the West Indies, but there are better titles for this volume such as The Mad Monk or The Abbot of Andechs or The Gruesome Golem or … [That’s enough suggestions. –ed.]

 

The Dark Monk and The Beggar King

The Dark Monk

By Oliver Pötzsch.

Having scoffed a bunch of doughnuts (yes, doughnuts in 17th-century Bavaria; really?), Andreas Koppmeyer drops dead, and it doesn’t take Jakob Kuisl, his daughter, Magdalena, and her boyfriend, Simon Fronwieser, long before they’re involved with fanatical monks in pursuit of the treasure of the Knights Templar. They’re assisted by Koppmeyer’s attractive, sophisticated sister, Benedikta, in their endeavours. Everyone ends up in peril, and all shall have narrow escapes.

Meanwhile, Johann Lechner, the town clerk, has Kuisl leading a band of bandit hunters to capture Hans Scheller and his gang. Kuisl has Lechner promise the Scheller will die quickly, but the clerk reneges, and the hangman uses his medical skills to make sure that he’s able to keep his promise. But attacks on merchant caravans continue even when they take obscure routes supposedly only known to the merchant had his men.

After falling into the clutches of the mad monks, Simon and Benedikta rather neatly meet up with Magdalena, and are rescued by Jakob. The final battle leads to the destruction of the treasure the monks were seeking, and Kuisl manages to prevent Simon from being brutally executed for desecrating a holy relic. Simon and Magdalena are reunited, and Simon seems to have accidentally invented penicillin, which helps him to cure the Schreevogls’ daughter, Clara, of the fever that’s been affecting the cits of Schongau.

They kiss, they fight, they kiss, they fight, etc. Rather predictably, Benedikta turns Simon’s head with her Parisian French, and Magdalena, who is thoroughly versed in The Big Book of Relationship Clichés, instantly jumps to the worst possible conclusion about them. Simon also doesn’t help himself with his ill-tempered outburst to Magdalena. When Benedikta’s true nature was unmasked, I didn’t feel particularly surprised, and even after the suspicion that she’d murdered her brother was allayed, I did wonder what the truth about her was going to be.

Magdalena was the damsel-in-distress again, although she didn’t need rescuing this time. The strangely indestructible Brother Jakobus was a bit silly, a bit like one of those cinema villains, who no matter how many anvils land on him, manages to fight one more round.

Although the book purports to be the UK edition, in truth, it’s the American edition with some words spelt correctly, others overlooked, and nothing much else changed. I do wonder, when Pötzsch talks about doughnuts, what food is actually meant, and whether like so many dishes in China, it shouldn’t be translated at all.

The Beggar King.

Jakob Kuisl hurries off to Regensburg because he’s heard his sister is ill. This is an understatement because she’s been ever so slightly murdered along with her husband, and when Kuisl discovers the bodies, dear reader, you’ll be surprised to learn that the local fuzz nick him half a mo’ later. Imagine that in an Oliver Pötzsch novel. The man is so unpredictable.

Meanwhile, back in Schongau, Magdalena Kuisl throws a massive strop and heads off for Regensburg (again, how unpredictable of Pötzsch). I bet you can’t guess what happens next. Simon Fronwieser goes to Regensburg. Did you guess? No, I bet you didn’t.

And in the interests of balance after the previous instalment in the series, Magdalena falls in with the oily Venetian ambassador, Silvio Contarini, who’s even shorter that Simon.

Meanwhile, Kuisl has been being brutally tortured, with one of the witnesses clearly enjoying the proceedings just a little too much, and the Schongau hangman quickly realises that the whole business is an elaborate trap. But does our man talk? Not a bit, and Philipp Teuber, the local hangman, knows that his colleague is wholly innocent.

While her dad’s being tortured, Magdalena’s also in a spot of bother, along with Simon, the pair of them having been fingered for allegedly burning down her aunt’s house, where they found a secret alchemy lab containing a mysterious blue powder. As a result, they end up in league with the beggars of Regensburg who know much about various covert activities in the city.

Our three heroes are eventually reunited after Kuisl escapes with Teuber’s help and manages to find asylum in the bishop’s palace. But the hangman of Schongau, who has worked out who his nemesis is, immediately goes off to confront him while Simon and Magdalena confront the villains behind the blue powder.

Various things have been irritating me about this series. One is the squabbling between Simon and Magdalena, which is contrived and clichéd. Magdalena’s wilfulness is constantly and conveniently getting her into trouble, and Simon can’t sneak anywhere without tripping over the noisiest thing he can find.

In other words, the books are a bit like a collection of B-movie clichés which are trying to ape something like the relentless action of the Indiana Jones films. I can well imagine these being turned into some sort of silly budget flick in which Ben Kingsley turns up because he has to pay some ex-wife maintenance and is damned if the money will come from one of his sensible films.

I can at least report that in this volume, no doughnuts or other anachronistic American foods were eaten, knowingly or otherwise. On the other hand, the words “UK edition” ring a little hollow once again because the orthography remains so inconsistent.

The books are a decent enough read, but if they had less of an eye on some cheap, all-action flick, they might be better for it. In the next volume, Magdalena has only had to walk up some stairs to find herself in peril, and I predict that we’re on the slippery slope to, “I’m the main character. Defer to me”, and everyone does.

 

The Hangman’s Daughter

By Oliver Pötzsch.

When Josef Grimmer is fished out of the river, and dies shortly afterwards, the people of Schongau instantly decide that the culprit must be the local midwife, Martha Stechlin, who must be a witch. She’s rescued by the hangman, Jakob Kuisl, who takes her to prison for her own safety. The town council wants him to torture her and extract a confession so that she can be executed and peace and calm can return to Schongau. Not for one moment does Kuisl believe Stechlin is a witch, and although he cannot avoid torturing her, he does manage to delay a confession long enough to save her.

Meanwhile, the murders of children continue, led by a man called the devil because of his skeletal hand. The killers are, in fact, four mercenaries, who are working for some prominent burgher who is searching the site of a leper house for some buried treasure.

Kuisl is assisted in his investigations by Simon Fronwieser, the son of the local doctor, who has more than a slight interest in the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena. Together, the pair of them manage to solve the mystery, rescue Magdalena, and see that the former soldiers get their just desserts.

The book is based on the history of Pötzsch’s own family, and Jakob Kuisl is an actual historical figure. He’s officially the hangman, torturer, and CEO of sewage management in Schongau, but he’s also a learned man, who is far more skilled in medicine than Fronwieser’s father, who still lives in the medieval world of the four humours, and he has a collection of the latest medical texts.

Magdalena, the eponymous daughter, is very much her father’s child. Fronwieser admires her as much for her wits as for her looks, although her primary function is to be abducted so that the boys can rescue her.

Simon Fronwieser is the archetypal weedy sidekick. Like Kuisl, he’s forward thinking in contrast to his father and much of the rest of Schongau, who still seem to be living in the Middle Ages.

If anything, The Hangman’s Daughter is slightly windy, although it never got to the point where I was skipping pages to get to the next major event. Pötzsch can be a little repetitious at times. On more than one occasion, characters recall they’ve forgotten something, and the encounters with main villain, Christian Braunschweiger, mostly end the same way with narrow escapes for our heroes, but his comeuppance happens off screen. Kuisl needs to overcome him, but by that point in the story, the description of their battle has gone on quite long enough. The delays which Kuisl engineers to prevent Stechlin from confessing lead to repeated gatherings of witnesses from the town council, which might’ve largely taken place off screen as well. “The door slammed shut, and Jakob went grimly about his business.”

As to the identity of the mastermind behind the murders of the children and the damage to the leper house, the answer is completely unexpected, but in the best traditions of the genre, the boss monster only has a very small role to play in the book until the curtain is swept aside and they emerge from the shadows twirling their metaphorical moustaches. On the other hand, the reader is never invested in the puppet masters, who get away with it anyway. In a further twist, the town clerk, Johann Lechner, already knew who was behind recent events, but wanted Stechlin to be the scapegoat.

Presumably, the dull cits of 17th century Bavaria were inclined to be as deeply superstitious as Pötzsch portrays them (and, I suppose, this was the great age of moral panic about witchcraft). Certainly, according to the author’s note at the end of the book, the Kuisls were a well-educated family, and there is an antithesis between the hysteria of the unlearned villagers and the hangman’s more rational, sensible view of the situation.

I did wonder about the translation at times. The word “doughnut” appeared on the first page. Was bagel meant? Would bagel have been a more suitable word? Would it have been better to retain the German word of the original? Or “By now she had realised that something was fishy” (my italics). Really? Fishy? Is that stylistically suitable? Or “You chaps stood around yammering” (again, my italics). What is this, the 1930s? At least you can get a UK edition of the book. No need to be irritated by irritating Americanisms.

While The Hangman’s Daughter has its issues, it’s a decent enough read and has me looking forward to the next volume in the series.

Chosen

By Benedict Jacka.

In Alex Verus and the Case of the Angry Adolescent Adepts, Verus is confronted by a group of, er, angry adolescent adepts1, led by Will Traviss, who is especially angry because Verus allegedly murdered his sister, Catherine. (Actually, the mage helped abduct the girl when he was an apprentice, but the real killer was Verus’ fellow apprentice, Rachel [aka Deleo, the Chosen of Richard Drakh]). After several encounters, Verus decides that the best defence is termination with extreme prejudice. He entices them to his former master’s unoccupied mansion, and summons Deleo and Cinder to do most of the dirty work.

The plot is somewhat thin and repetitious, being repeated episodes in which the adepts quickly track Verus down, who then barely survives the encounter, either with help from Luna, Anne and Variam, or by himself. The story filled out with flashbacks, one to when Drakh’s apprentices abducted Catherine, and the other, in the shadowy dreamworld of Elsewhere. There, Verus learns how Rachel became Drakh’s Chosen, how Shireen died, how she exists in Elsewhere, and why, it seems, Rachel is a couple of wands short of a magic shop.

The characterisation of the adepts in limited. Only Will has a grudge against Verus, but he has nothing beyond that, and every encounter they have is basically the same, occurring in different places. One or two members of the group have names, but others are never identified beyond nicknames, and there’s no opportunity for them to develop except where the circumstances require input from them. There was also something a bit too young-adult-fiction by making them stroppy teenagers. It seemed to me to undermine the internal plausibility by having Verus menaced by a bunch of schoolchildren.

Verus remains ambiguous. What is he really? A Dark mage in denial? A grey mage? A pragmatic mage? A devious, manipulative mage? He’s supposedly not a bad person, but so far, he’s not shied away from killing people off even if the pattern is much the same. Like Khazad in the first book, Will is warned, and when he fails to heed the warnings, Verus kills him. When Verus is called a Dark mage, he doesn’t even bother denying it, and there’s no internal monologue denying it, either.

The most interesting part of this is not the main plot, which is thinner than a monk’s underpants, but the back stories even if the one in Elsewhere does drag on, and the reader is inclined to agree with Verus that Shireen could’ve cut to the chase.

It’s still difficult to guess where Jacka is going with all this. Is Verus going to admit he’s a Dark mage, or is he constantly going to end up in such danger that if he doesn’t kill his enemies, they’ll kill him?2 As one review on Amazon put it, Jacka needs to make his mind up about what sort of mage Verus is.3

If I’d been writing this, I would’ve either abandoned it or have turned it into a novella, but there’s not enough toothpaste in this tube without squeezing some of the vacuum out as well.

I think that with Chosen, I’ve done with this series. None of the books in it have been much above three to three-and-a-half stars; I can’t say I much like Alex Verus anyway, or find his character engaging in the same way that Milton’s Satan is engaging; and it can’t be a good sign that I read this one in about a day flat without even noticing that it’d gone by so quickly.

Notes
1. Adepts are magic users, but only have access to a single spell.
2. Since Jacka is or was a lawyer, I wonder whether these stories are the world of lawyers (bitchy, backstabbing, ambiguous) transposed to a magical universe.
3. If I wrote a book called “How to annoy your audience and alienate readers”, I’d be citing this series.

 

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.