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The Redemption of Alexander Seaton: Alexander Seaton 1 Paperback – 7 May 2009
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'Such is the quality of the recreation, not only of the reeking ebb and flow of everyday life but also of the period mindset that it's easy to believe Satan is walking abroad ... this is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut' Guardian. (Guardian)
A sleuth to rival Shardlake or Cadfael - a mystery that will chill your blood. A must-read for fans of Rory Clements and SJ Parris.See all Product description
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Initially, it took me a while to get into this book and there was a moment when I almost gave up but I am very glad that I didn't and went on to discover the joys of some seriously good writing. Set in a period of history that I am not very familiar with, I was intrigued, fascinated and at times horrified by the attitudes of the time with their anti-Catholic sentiments, the witch-hunts, superstitions and the appalling aftermath that results when these are mixed with small-town gossip, pettiness, jealousies and ignorance.
Alexander lives his life trying to keep as low a profile as possible after having fallen at the last hurdle in his desire to become a minister of the Kirk. We learn of his past as he tries to help his friend, accused of murder, prove his innocence. Alexander is a flawed young man but very likeable and honourable. His heart and intentions are definitely in the right place but he is being manipulated by forces that he has no knowledge of. The characters are all very well developed, even those with only a small part to play in the overall story (like the two prostitute sisters) and the writing itself is very atmospheric and full of historical detail which I greatly enjoyed. The unravelling of the murder of the apothecary's assistant takes Alexander on a journey both personal and literal with forays to Aberdeen, the Castle of Straloch and to the cave of the Wise Woman who knows details of his past that are confounding to him. Whilst he is searching for answers to clear his friend, he is also trying to come to terms with his past and find peace for his future The various strands of Alexander's story are well-woven and hugely entertaining. Definitely a debut worth every one of the five stars!
This was a slow burn of a novel. The setting, Banf in the reign of James VI and I, was extremely unusual, and as a result, it took me a while to get accustomed to the various characters and their place in the town - which really mattered. Alexander Seaton though, I warmed to right away. He's a fallen angel of a man, a man with a real and genuine calling in a world of hypocritical religious zealots, who has fallen from grace rather spectacularly and publicly. Rather than pick himself up, he wears a metaphorical hair shirt and takes every opportunity he can to do himself down, despite the fact that he's clearly one of the few men of integrity in the book. But once I got to grips with the rest of the cast, Alexander wasn't the only character I warmed to - or heartily disliked! It really is a question of persisting, because the rewards are there, in this rich, multi-layered story.
This is a murder mystery. It's also an allegory that could easily be fitted to any number of times and situations, and in that sense it reminded me of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale - a chilling lesson. But it's also a brilliantly drawn and evocative account of life in an obscure corner of Scotland at a less glamorous period of history.
So why not more stars? Because I did have to work hard at it for a good half of the book. It's not a story you can pick up and put down easily, and there are times when I felt that there was simply too much description - when Alexander journeys from Banf to Aberdeen, for example, I could have done without the street by wynd by vennel directions (which I also hated in the first Peter May book). So different. And rewarding. And I'm glad I read it. The next one is set in Northern Ireland though, and I'm not so sure I fancy that, which is a shame.
I really enjoyed this book and am very pleased it was suggested by the organiser of the book group I am in otherwise I may never have discovered the writings of Shona MacLean (or S.G. MacLean as she is otherwise known). Although I found the book a bit dense at first it gets better as you get used to it. The descriptions are excellent and I genuinely felt as though I was alongside Alexander Seaton throughout the entire book. The descriptions of the characters, town, smells and noises are so clear that you are transported to that time and place and the religious fears and concerns of invasion come across so clearly that even though I know little of that time I could appreciate how concerned people were and how even the smallest thing could affect how someone was viewed. I will definitely be reading more from Shona MacLean and I sincerely hope she keeps writing such richly detailed and engrossing books