(creator: Shona MacLean)
|Alexander Seaton, when we first meet him, is a 27-year-old Scotsman who had become a schoolmaster by default. He had been a would-be minister whose love affair with a local aristocrat's daughter had left him disgraced and deprived of his vocation. After his rejection, he spent a wild six months or more drinking and whoring before settling down to become "an undermaster in a burgh grammar school" at Banff. But he is obviously destined for higher things.
Shona MacLean (1966 - ) was born in Inverness and grew up in the Scottish Highlands where her parents were hoteliers. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in 17th century History from the University of Aberdeen. She lives on the Banffshire coast with her husband and four children. She is the niece of the late novelist Alistair MacLean. Twelve agents and publishers rejected her first book, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, before she finally found an agent who accepted it. It was well reviewed, and was followed by further novels about Alexander Seaton.
The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2008)
The trail leads on to witch-hunting, cruelty, prejudice and, following the discovery of a series of detailed maps of the coastline produced by the murdered man, accusations of treacherous Catholic plotting. It is also a personal quest that leads Alexander to the rediscovery of his faith in God as well as his belief in himself. As his old teacher, Dr Forbes, Professor of Divinity in the King's College of Aberdeen, tells him, "You were carnal - but who amongst us has not been tempted, has not fallen?.... In all your years here, Alexander, you grappled with and mastered the most abstruse theological propositions. You could argue any point almost as well as I could myself. For all that though, God's greatest gift in you was the pure faith with which He graced you. It was that above all that I thought would make you the finest of ministers .... But I fear you have forgotten the most important lesson of all .... The Son of God came into this world to save sinners such as you and me. That is the great Covenant. Do not ask me ever to believe, Alexander, that you have grown so arrogant as to think your sin greater than His sacrifice."
It makes a strong, if slow-moving and sometimes slightly confusing story, brought to life by very realistic descriptions of the Scottish period setting. "The place is full of ministers, and not a smiling face amongst them." The tolbooth, where Alexander's friend is held prisoner, literally stinks: "All the bodily odours we had ever encountered were compressed and magnified within those thick, stone, near-windowless walls. The damp and cold and the vermin vied for precedence in a stinking cavern of God-forsaken despair."
The characters, particularly that of Alexander Seaton himself, are well drawn and hold the attention throughout, and there are some vivid moments as when a horrified Dr Jaffray explains to Alexander, "Hell has been here, Alexander. Hell has been here tonight. They have taken her (a young woman who had committed suicide), taken up the dead body from this room, from that table, and burnt her for a witch." Tears "of utter despair rolled down his cheeks".
A few real people also appear in the book: there are cameos of a bookseller, the painter George Jameson, and map-maker and Catholic sympathiser Robert Gordon of Straloch. The author explains, "I enjoyed putting him in the book because I was able to present him in quite a sympathetic light. I'd be uncomfortable attributing actions to historical characters in fiction that were detrimental to their reputation if there was no historical foundation for it."
The story might have benefited from a little more action, and perhaps a slightly stronger plot, but it is told in a totally convincing way, and the little Scottish community really comes to life.
A Game of Sorrows (2010)
There are a few exciting parts, as when Alexander is pursued by a pack of huntsmen and their yelping dogs, and it is moving when Sean's sister Deirdre wrongly identifies Alexander as his now dead brother, but there is a plethora of wild and unlikely Irish characters and it all leads up to a melodramatic and highly unconvincing climax.
Altogether, it makes a thoroughly confusing story with few characters with whom the reader can readily identify or feel much sympathy. The way that Alexander so readily sets out for Ulster at less than an hour's notice, blithely abandoning the task that he has just been given at the college where he is meant to so enjoy teaching, as well as his girl friend Sarah, all without a word of explanation, seems quite incredible. As is the way that, later on, he is so conveniently able to overhear everything said by his captors even when confined to a prison pit!
Crucible of Secrets (2011)
It is really good to find Alexander back in his Scottish setting, all those Irish adventures of three years before apparently conveniently forgotten. He has married Sarah by now, but much resents her apparent friendship with her ex-admirer Andrew Carmichael - a degree of resentment and suspicion which sometimes seems more than a little over the top. And his behaviour when he finds himself in possession of a book for which the murderer is searching and then openly walks through the town with it seems more than a little naive. But it makes a coherent and quite gripping story.
Once again it is Alexander who narrates throughout, although his narrative is not really helped by occasional interjections in italics contributed by the murderer himself who explains that he is “damned for all eternity"! It makes it all seem too artificial. However, there is some fine dramatic action when Alexander's life is saved by the intervention of his dog Dileas, and there are some interesting insights into university life at a time when "the boys" could be beaten for misbehaviour. The plot may creak at times, and, as Alexander belatedly tells the murderer, “This was not a matter to kill over“, but it holds the interest throughout.
|This was the first book of the series. It makes a promising start.|