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Alexander Seaton is a teacher in the Aberdeen of 1628; happy with his lot and in love. He has just been entrusted with an important mission to Poland by his college, when Sean O'Neill, his Irish cousin who is a near doppelganger, turns up and begs him to come to Ulster to help in the quest to remove a curse which has been laid on the family at the wedding of Sean's sister Deirdre. Much against his own inclination, Alexander agrees and he and Sean journey to Ireland. There Alexander is plunged into a political situation which is ready to explode, the loves and hates of the dysfunctional O'Neill clan, and a journey to track down the origin of the curse and to solve a murder. This quest will not only endanger Alexander's life and liberty, but force him to ask many questions about his background and inheritance, and what these mean for him and his beliefs.
A game of sorrows, the second book in what I would very much hope is a lengthy Alexander Seaton series, is an extraordinary historical mystery. It is extraordinary for a couple of reasons. In the first place there is the setting. This is a very interesting issue. Obviously adventurous new historical mystery writers are trying all the time to come with a time and place which avoid the overpopulated and often clichéd fields: Scotland and Ireland in the 17th century are an absolutely brilliant choice. Little-known, the history is complicated and dramatic; indeed it is a considerable mystery in itself. So Shona MacLean starts with a tremendous advantage by taking a wonderfully conducive setting and era, one which, in addition, she knows well. And the very fact of using such an unusual setting means that the writer can be fairly 'history-light' and still convey far, far more that is new and informative for ninety-nine percent of readers than a writer who chooses Victorian London can do with page upon page of detail.
The second extraordinary thing about this book is the narrative style and voice. I realised after a few chapters that the writer of whom I was constantly reminded was one not usually recognised as a mystery one at all, namely Robert Louis Stevenson, especially in KIDNAPPED. There are certain strong thematic resemblances between the two books, notably the clash between lowland Scots and Gaelic cultures. But beyond this there is a certain tone and style, a heady narrative energy, which links the works. For it is above all narrative drive which distinguishes MacLean's writing (and it is worth noting that she is the niece of thriller writer Alistair MacLean): A GAME OF SORROWS is a book which takes you by the throat and does not let go from first to last.
For this to work, one needs a central figure who will hold and fascinate the reader, yet allow himself to be overshadowed by the more colourful characters who dominate the book. MacLean pulls it off. We are thoroughly engaged by Alexander Seaton and his travails both narrative and psychological, but the dominant personalities of the book still shine through. And unlike Stevenson the most dominant and memorable of these are women, notably Deirdre and her and Seaton's grandmother Maeve.
A GAME OF SORROWS is not by any means perfect. The descriptive writing, if one pauses to analyse it, is sometimes a little hackneyed, and the book could have done with some copy editing (I am quite sure MacLean did not intend to describe Galloway as the ‘north-eastern corner' of Scotland when it is the south-eastern). The murder plot is hardly what one might describe as intricate. There were times when I felt a little frustrated that MacLean would not engage more directly with the theological differences. But despite these reservations I have no hesitation in declaring A GAME OF SORROWS to be a triumph. It is a historical mystery set in a very little known time and place, one which is full of interest and relevance. It calls to mind a truly great writer, Stevenson, and does not suffer overmuch in the comparison, and adds an engaging feminist twist by putting fascinating women at the centre of the action. MacLean is able to write a really compelling and engrossing narrative, and creates for us a narrator who intrigues and engages us without drawing too much attention away from many other vibrant characters. If you only read one British historical mystery this year my recommendation (to date at any rate) would unquestionably be A GAME OF SORROWS.
§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).
Reviewed by Nick Hay, August 2010
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