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The Fanatic
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on 4 October 2017
A great idea behind this book looking at a turbulent period in Scotland's history but it doesn't deliver. The use of, what I imagine, is some form of olde Scots, may provide some authenticity but it makes the book tortuous to read. Telling the story through alternating chapters set in the late 20th century and mid 17th just doesn't work. The 1990's part of the story is, frankly, daft. The 1670s does, occasionally grab your attention - the trial of the main protagonist is wonderful, but mostly it's slow, hard going. Not a good read.
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VINE VOICEon 6 April 2010
James Robertson isn't just an excellent Scottish writer; he's an excellent writer, period. His knowledge of Scottish history is as impressive as his ability to evoke vivid images in the mind's eye of the reader. Having previously read and been amazed by 'The Testament of Gideon Mack', I picked up 'The Fanatic' with high hopes. When I read that witchcraft, religious persecution, ghosts, intolerance, bestiality and incest were ingredients in the story, I expected a yarn of Tam O' Shanteresque proportions. The result, however, fell short of that mark.

The story follows Andrew Carlin, who secures a cash-in-hand job on an Edinburgh ghost tour, playing the spectre of Major Weir, an infamous historical figure executed in Edinburgh during the 17th Century for being in league with the Devil, and other crimes such as incest with his sister, and bestiality with a variety of animals. As Carlin's research takes him deep into Major Weir's past, they become kindred souls of sorts; both Carlin and Weir have been plagued by personal demons, just as both have been misunderstood, feared, despised and persecuted. Carlin's consciousness increasingly straddles two eras, one foot planted in the past, one in the present day, but existing fully in neither. His studies and visions uncover a James Mitchel, co-conspirator of Major Weir, and fellow Covenanter. Mitchel's failed assassination attempt on Archbishop James Sharp led to his torture and subsequent imprisonment on Bass Rock, where his mental and physical faculties went into decline. There are parallels between Mitchel's exile on Bass Rock and Carlin's banishment from Scotland after (being falsely accused of) the attemped rape of an underage girl. Indeed, 'The Fanatic' is a story of parallels: parallel times in Scottish history; parallel lives of kindred souls; parallels between physical sacrifice and spiritual enlightenment; parallels between historical control by the church and current control by political factions; parallels between medieval fear of witchcraft and devilry, and modern-day fear of repeating history's mistakes; parallels between external and internal demons. I hoped the story's two timelines would join together in a coherent climax, in the way Salman Rushdie's masterful 'Midnight's Children' does. Not so. Rather than tying up the loose ends in a beautiful reconciliation, Robertson leaves them flapping in the wind, still disconnected. The moral of the story remains unclear. That said, 'The Fanatic' is an enjoyable read and a non-sugar-coated education on Scotland's chequered past with regards to religious persecution and violation of human rights. Perhaps that is the book's only stumbling point: that it sticks too rigidly to historical fact, without unleashing Robertson's creative imagination and letting it run riot. I frequently felt that Robertson was holding back his imagination, perhaps in the name of brevity, or perhaps in the interest of historical authenticity.

James Robertson is a stickler for detail. This makes his writing specific and, thus, believable. The book's characters, especially those rooted in historical fact, are well fleshed out. Robertson's language is both beautifully descriptive and unquestionably Scottish. Despite that, I can't help feeling that his best writing is yet to come. If James Robertson learns to let his imagination run amok like the fearless Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco, we'll be in for a real treat. In the meantime, he's one of the best writers out there and has technical ability in spades.

I reserve five-star reviews for books that I consider to be masterpieces. While 'The Fanatic' is well-written, historically accurate and an enjoyable read, it doesn't fall into that category. Without any doubt, though, it deserves a solid four stars.
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on 12 July 2001
If you're into history and know the landscape and past of Edinburgh/Scotland then you'll really take to this book. He captures the present day Edinburgh very well and (although I wasn't there at the time!) convinced me of the harsh realities of the Tolbooth Prison and the Bass Rock a few centuries ago. The portrayal of life in Edinburgh then and now will strike a chord with anyone who has sympathy for those living on the outer edge of society.
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on 21 December 2001
I'm not Scottish; James Robertson's book is. That's what gives it its flavour. But its atmosphere and intelligence is such that - despite the Scots language (or dialect - let's not get into that) used, it will reach beyond a purely national audience.
This is a book that should appeal to everyone who has ever enjoyed a history documentary; or a big biography of, say, Henry VIII or Richard III or Julius Caesar.
Certainly, Robertson writes with a focused historian's vision: The Fanatic's main subject is the intractable, often bewildering religious disputes of the 17th century (mixed with a dash of modern-day Edinburgh, with all its tourist and students and flakes). And the author, though he's an accesible writer, does not dumb down for his readers
But this novel is also about a time when committing to a cause meant something, and when the stakes of standing up for a belief were so much higher than today. The phrase "sticking your neck out" doesn't come from nowhere...
Top class. I'm on tenterhooks for the sequel
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on 5 August 2000
This is an extraordinary debut novel. The recreation of the vicious, internecine plotting and fighting that took place after the restoration of Charles 1 is fantastically well-done. At times one is almost forced to stop reading, such is the inhumanity that men heap upon other fellow men and women. As the book shifts to-and-from the late 20th to the late 17th centuries pertinent questions are raised about precisely what kind of society and nation Scotland now wants to become. Thouroughly recommended.
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on 24 February 2002
Robertson's novel, as well as being a gripping, trans-historical yarn about demonology, depression and detectives, is an important advance in what Scotland can offer in terms of literary fiction. Forget the slumming it shabby-chic of the Irvine Welsh clones, this is a novelist ready to grapple with Ideas, and prosecute them through engaged narrative. A fugue between the past and the present, a dialectic, an argument and above all an urgency.
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on 12 September 2001
James Robertsons novel weaves together (not entirely convincingly) stories set in Edinburgh in 1990s and the 1670s. The novel deals with little discussed aspect of Scottish history and juxtaposes it with modern day events, most specifically the 1997 General election.
The historical aspects of the novel are well done dramatic but at the same time credible - you believe that what you are reading is close to the truth. However the more current storyline is thin and seems a little forced in its symbolism.
While the historical characters really come to life only one of the modern characters is more than paper thin.
All in all a decent, entertaining and informative read, but be prepared for loats aw brawd Scots dialekt!
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on 12 February 2016
A story about a man who falls into the job of acting as the ghost of Major Thomas Weir in one of Edinburgh’s conducted walks. The job leads him into researching Weir’s life and through him, the lives of other Covenanters. Funnily enough, the courts trying the Covenanters were loaded with those from the landed and privileged classes........
Interesting if not exactly enjoyable.
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on 22 May 2001
James Robertson's novel is ambitious in scope yet he manages to weave his story well between Edinburgh in the 1990s and Edinburgh in the 17th century. Interesting from a historical perspective alone, the way in which Robertson uses history and brings it alive in his modern characters is impressive, even if one is occasionally required to suspend belief.
The Scots dialect makes it slow going at times but it is a rewarding book and this should not discourage readers. A knowledge of Edinburgh brings the novel alive, yet even without this, Robertson's evocation of times past stimulates the imagination and involves the reader in the harrowing stories that unfold.
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on 24 January 2014
As a friendly, relaxed account of the author's experiences as a salesman in, usually, Glasgow's poorer districts this is a pleasant -and sometimes not so pleasant- tale. The book is not setting out to rival R.L.Stevenson's position in Scottish literature, but sits alongside J.J. Bell's 'Wee McGreegor' as a retelling of life in parts of Glasgow as it used to be not all that long ago. It is good to see that so many Weegies are prepared to put their experiences on record. Amazon has a fair selection of their tales.
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