Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Talus and the Frozen King - Graham Edwards

I've been reading quite a bit of prehistoric fiction recently  (The Shelters of Stone, Shaman, The Reindeer People),  so when I was offered a review copy of Graham Edwards' Talus and the Frozen King I figured this one would fit right in. Edwards has published a number of fantasy novels under his own name, and more recently, two crime novels as Nick Curtis. I haven't read any of them but it would appear that in this novel he tries to bring these genres together. In this book Edwards introduces 'the worlds first detective.'

On their long track north, in search of the place where the northern light touches the sky, the bard Talus and his traveling companion Bran arrive at the island of Creyak. They arrive at an unfortunate time, the king of the island has just been found dead and strangers are not welcome on the island at the best of times. What is worse, it is immediately apparent to Talus that the kind did not die a natural death. Despite the hostility of some of the islanders, he sets himself the task of unravelling the mystery of the king's death.

Edwards has clearly done quite a bit of research on this book but it is also blatantly obvious he doesn't let his research get in the way of a good story. From what he describes it is almost impossible to date the story or pin down where it is set. The settlement Edwards describes is inspired by the neolithic site of Skara Brae on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney isles. I get the feeling the rest of the description of the island doesn't match however. That particular site was occupied from about 3200 BC, but Edwards states on his site that the story is set a bit earlier. That clashes with the reference to 'the stepped tombs in a distant desert land.' Which, if they are referring to ancient Egyptian monuments, seems to imply that the story is set in the 28th or 27th century BC. Then there is a reference to 'the cairns of the jungle realms that lie far to the west, over the sea', which can't really be placed in this time period at all. In short, Edwards does not strive for historical accuracy as much as tries to evoke a certain atmosphere in his novels.

That atmosphere is certainly there. The landscape he describes is cold and misty. A rocky icebound island, hiding the signs of centuries of habitation. It feels already old in the early stages of what we consider civilization. A place ruled by fear and distrust, illuminated by the eerie aurora that attracts the main characters. It's an almost otherworldly setting. I also got the feeling that is was set a little further north than the Orkney's but again, Edwards is not very precise in this respect.

At the core, the story is a mystery. Talus must find the killer without the aid of forensics or any sort of judicial system. He needs to tie the evidence together with what he learns from the people on the island. It is as much a matter of gaining insight into what drives the people he talks to as much as looking at the physical evidence. Not that Talus discards this altogether. He quickly figures out the killer is left-handed for instance. Despite his modest means, Talus is quite a skilled investigator.

I guess you could say is molded after the classic great detectives. He is a very observant man, good at spotting detail and fitting it into a bigger picture. He is also, how shall I put is, not an easy man to be around. He doesn't always have patience with those unable to follow the leaps in his thinking and often can't be bothered to explain. A trait that gets him in dangerous situations more than once. Fortunately, his gift for words is such that he can usually talk himself out of it. For the people around him, and to an extent for the reader, Talus is a bit of a trail. More than once, his motivations do not become clear until he explains them later on in the story.

The mystery Talus is trying to unravels starts small but quickly spreads. The murder of the king is the pinnacle of a much larger conflict within the community and even involving another local settlement. As strangers, Bran and Talus peel back layer after layer of conflict, strife, discontent and jealousy in order to find the truth. The inner workings of an essentially isolated community where one man with a strong arm and a forceful personality can make his subjects do his biding are slowly revealed to the reader. The pacing is well handled but one thing that did bother me about the plot was that there seemed to be very little in the way of laws and customs regarding crime and punishment within the community. Somehow that strikes me as unlikely.

As a mystery I don't think it is the best I've ever read. Talus needs to do a bit too much explaining for the whole thing to make sense. That being said, the novel is a quick and entertaining read. Not heavy on history or bogged down by archaeologic detail, Edwards keeps the story going at a brisk pace. The mystery set before the reader in the opening chapters is fully resolved by the end of it but Talus and Bran clearly have a past and from what we get to see of it, I would be surprised if Edwards meant to keep it to a single volume. Talus and the Frozen King is an entertaining read that offers plenty of opportunities for further adventures. I for one, wouldn't mind seeing another one of these come my way.

Book Details
Title: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 336
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-84997-664-0
First published: 2014

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