The reason it is not great is the fact that the denouement is laid before the reader in the prologue. The plot is therefore laced with a futile sense of inevitability; you know exactly what is going to happen before it happens.
The reason for this is clear - it is the curse of modern literature: get the metaphorical explosion in quickly. We are not trusted, as readers, to allow a book to develop around us. There is no time, in this age of immediacy, for a story to unravel itself. So, with this book, the conclusion is given to you as a taster. It is a big risk. Normally, this would kill a book.
I am more than willing to forgive Robertson for bowing to the pressure to grab an audience in the first few pages because he has created a fantastic protagonist as memorable as (almost) any character of Dickens. Gideon Mack is utterly believeable; he is very much part of his time. He is beset with weaknesses and doubts on every level. These make him human and make him easy to identify with. This empathy is especially evident after his moment of greatest sorrow. Robertson's greatest achievement, however, is that he manages to maintain this empathy for his protagonist even after he displays the depth of his moral frailty.
Unfortunately, few of the supporting cast are equally believeable. Only his father and the Devil come close. This doesn't matter. The strength of this book is the protagonist. It is rare to find a character so believable, so easy to empathise with in modern literature. Gideon Mack is not the only strength of this book though. The towns, cities and villages of Scotland, and their respective environs are also beautifully portrayed and sympathetically manipulated.
This book comes so close to being great; it's a shame that this obsession with having a 'hook' early in the book has (almost) spoilt it. Come on publishers, let us have more characters like Gideon Mack and trust us to stick with a story even if it doesn't have fancy literary devices or narrative structures; it is the Gideon Mack's of this literary world that bring us back to books.
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