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on 13 September 2012
Bristol was the port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was the point of embarcation for the heroes of 'Gulliver's Travels' and 'Treasure Island'. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent following George III's madness.

'The Devil's Mask' certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, 'The Devils' Mask' doesn't convey a sense of geography to readers unfamiliar with the city, and, at the least, a map of Bristol and the road between Bristol and Bath should have been included; without it I wouldn't blame anyone for becoming both lost and discouraged from further exploration.

The elements of the narrative are quickly and graphically introduced: the narrator Inigo Bright (a lawyer with artistic leanings, just like the author himself) is somehow different from this father and brothers; he is charged with getting to the root of discrepancies in the activities of the Bristol-based Western Trading Company; he keeps being warned off further investigations, not least by being attacked and imprisoned; he encounters a series of shocking murders, all associated with his investigations of a suspicious trading vessel; he finally discovers the truth which, surprise, surprise, involves his family with slavery and the aftermath of its abolition. Running through the first-person narrative is a parallel tale of young West African women holed up, first in a slaver, then in an underground place of confinement. The final denouement only confirms what we knew from the opening pages, and so is no real mystery; the only mystery is why the young lawyer took so long to work out the obvious.

This was a promising proposition, a novel exploring the ramifications of Bristol's involvement in the slave trade appearing not long after the 200th anniversary of slavery's abolition in most of the British Empire. Sadly, 'The Devil's Mask' doesn't live up to this promise. There is a catalogue of failings which weaken the impact of this historical detective fiction. First is the narrator, who is a weak and vacillating character much given to introspection but apparently caring very little about anybody or anything; as a result the reader scarcely cares about him. Second is the pace of the action: incidents lasting a few seconds are described in loving but lengthy detail, while descriptions that would give us a sense of place and time are skimped. Third, the descriptive passages are often inordinately convoluted, with pretentious word-painting of sunlight reflecting or not reflecting on water and apparently significant musings on seagulls. On top of that, dialogue and vocabulary were largely in modern English, heightening my sense of historical incongruity; this was not aided by the otherwise attractive book cover, based on a Victorian photograph of a half century or more later, showing the hazy outlines of St Mary Redcliffe (actually not mentioned in the novel) behind a ship's riggings and a young man, whom we are meant to identify as the hirsute hero, in mid-19th century clothing.

In short, this tale required very heavy editing, if not re-writing, pre-publication. It could have been an enjoyable and a real page-turner, but as it stands only a sense of duty could persuade this reviewer to complete it. It is a shame, as I really wanted to like this novel.
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on 7 June 2011
With this novel, Mr Wakling has staked a convincing claim to his place in refreshingly new literary territory.

I am not troubled by historical novels, and don't read thrillers, but this superb mystery story, set among the corrupt docks of Georgian Bristol, had me turning the pages at a frantic rate.

It's not just that the book is so well-plotted, the lead character so compelling or the supporting cast so well delineated. It's the quality of the writing. Entirely accessible, it is nevertheless rarely less than elegant.

There's plenty of humour - farcical, and also black. But it's woven into scenes of affecting horror with great skill.

More than anything, I was impressed by the conclusion. The narrator confirms your worst fears, but never spells them out. You are left alone with them.

'Tour de force' is a profoundly irritating and over-used cliche, but in this case it's hard to come up with a better phrase. Let's just say: 'a damn good book'.

It's only a matter of time before you see Rufus Sewell, or someone similar, in the screen version. The book will translate to cinema without effort, and without losing any of its power to intrigue and move you.

Do read it.
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on 29 April 2015
This is a mystery set in Georgian Bristol. The slave trade, which brought such wealth to the city, has just ended - and it is the repercussions of this loss of income across the merchant class that are the root of the mystery. But anyone who is snooty about mysteries should give this a go if they love fine writing and crystal descriptions. He brings it all to life, vivid and memorable.

I wish I had time to write a really detailed review. I absolutely loved this book. I'm from Bath and both my parents were born and grew up in Bristol where we have family, so I know it reasonably well. This enhanced my enjoyment but I don't think you need to know the city to love this book.

He writes so beautifully - another reviewer has mentioned his description of the seagulls that are everywhere - and it's a description of a seagull at the start of the book that caught my attention and told me that this was many steps above some of the crime thrillers I read. He has a gift for bringing characters to life in only a few sentences, and the plot itself is satisfying. The knots are tied, the conclusion reached completely naturally. The hero is just as well achieved.

I would very much recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical or crime fiction, anyone who knows the area, and those who get delight from really good writing. Some of his paragraphs ring like bells in their clarity. His precise, convincing descriptions of people, places and events makes it hugely pleasing, in the way that a really good poem can be pleasing. You are there - as crisp and clear as a good film - you can see it all. I will not forget this book in a hurry - and I read more than 200 books a year. Many of them are great escapist reads but very, very few are of this quality.
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on 6 July 2011
I really wasn't sure about this at first. A friend who reads Wakling in The Independent gave it to me. Historical novels are not really my thing and if you'd told me I was about to enter the world of a junior law clerk scratching his Noddy Holder mutton chops over a book-keeping anomaly in Bristol 150 years ago I would have probably re-wrapped and re-gifted . But...3 pages in and it wouldn't let go. The pace of the story is extraordinary. Characters walk on-scene and immediately you know them and believe in them. Who knows what and how? And just when you think you've got a fix on the intrigue the cards fall again. Really, I thought I'd solved the plot right until the last chapter but er... I hadn't. Also, the writing is gorgeous. And I mean consistently and all the way through. You might cut an author with such mastery of the technical a bit of slack in the actual delivery but no need. e.g. Just as, unknowingly, the main character Inigo speeds in a carriage to diabolical events in Bath he sees gulls:'They wheeled lazily above the field and speared into the crows, assassins amongst muggers, spurring the crows to flap up and away like litter blown down a lane.'
Isn't that just lovely? And I don' even like sea gulls! I spent a wondrous two days with this book. Bet you anything you're going to see a Guided Walk of all the Bristol landmarks from this story soon.
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on 7 June 2011
This story is both exciting and thought provoking. You can imagine the streets of Bristol, the docks, the cafe and the characters as if you had been there and met them yourself. The author has a way of making it all seen familiar even though it is set in a time long gone. There are some seriously harrowing scenes, which I suspect are dangerously accurate. There is also compassion and sensitivity. I found myself reading it long past bed time.... Brilliant.
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on 28 February 2013
A really interesting and unusual read - and a very promising author ! The sense of time and place is superbly done and the shocking tale actually shocks. Read it and see !
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on 21 May 2013
I have never read anything by this author but will certainly read more of his books. The topic of "The Devil's Mask" was unusual and rather shocking. I thought that Inigo Bright was an interesting and appealing "hero". I also liked the writing style very much and was sorry to finish the book. The setting of Bristol was well described and if there were errors I was not aware of them, although I have only visited there and am not a resident.
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on 18 February 2012
OK, its an interesting plot and sheds light on a relatively little known and thoroughly disreputable part of our history, and that gets it my three stars.

I would have enjoyed it very much more, though, if it had not been scattered far too liberally with anachronisms. This is sloppy writing and sloppy editing too, and as each example hits your eye and brain the irritation mounts. What a pity.
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on 8 June 2011
As a resident of Bristol, where this book is set, and being an occasional contributor to the local and national press, I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy.

The city where I live has never apologised for its significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. In 2007, the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, wept as he made reparation, and earlier in the same year, Liverpool, that other great Atlantic trading post, also said sorry for its role. But not Bristol. Which means that Christopher Wakling's new novel will no doubt rekindle public interest in this emotive subject, and lead to fierce debate across the city.

It would be a shame however, if such a debate obscured the fact that Wakling has written an excellent book which deserves to be talked about, regardless of its subject matter. It may be set in Bristol, but the issues it raises - identity, conformity, the pursuit of happiness versus financial gain - are universal.

The historical period is evoked well, particularly in the differences with our own modern world. Inigo Bright, Oni, the Alexander family, and the other main characters are not twentieth century people given nineteenth century costumes. Their behaviour is, variously, rascist, sexist, and often brutal. Likewise, the society in which they live is one of great inequality, the splendour of rich merchants houses contrasting with the squalor of seaman's lodgings.

To describe a book as a 'literary novel' has become something of an insult, implying linguistic indulgence. 'The Devil's Mask' is literary in the best sense of the word. The author is clearly concerned with language, and has taken a great deal of care over his prose. As a result, though rich in description and characterisation, the pace is brisk, and the plot unfolds crisply, revealing enough in each chapter to make the reader desire to know more.

Millions of people around the world remain in a state of slavery. It is a problem that has not gone away. Does it persist simply because of the financial rewards to be gained from its trade, or more chillingly, because it is in our nature to subjugate peoples to our own end? 'The Devil's Mask' will leave you thinking on this, at the same time as it entertains as a gripping historical thriller.
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on 18 June 2012
The Devil's Mask is, foremost, a beautifully-crafted piece of literary writing. I can't say I was all that clear what the story was about for the first half of the book, but in a way that didn't matter a great deal because I was enjoying the clever writing.

Just when I began to feel bored by the beauty and imagination of the English, the story warmed up a bit and became a tolerably good tale - not always convincing in parts, but there was sufficient pathos to make me care about some of the characters.

As the book is mostly about `literariness', a word on it. The writing is in a style that conveys the spirit of the time (200 years ago) but in a way that doesn't jar on the ear or imagination. Occasionally an anachronism slips in which stretches credulity too much, for example the word `intuited'; I find this a clumsy Americanism at the best of times, preferring the Anglo-Saxon `felt', but in the context of the time it set my teeth on edge (and here we are talking about our modern idea of how they may have talked 2 centuries ago, rather than whether they actually invented the damn word!) I also wondered how anything could swing from a rope `disingenuously'; I leapt to the dictionary for an alternative or historical meaning, but alas ...

But generally the style was clever. An example to whet the literary appetite: `Yawns satisfy; this one was perfunctory, over too quickly.' Brilliant.
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