Master of Shadows | Neil Oliver | 2015 | Orion Books | 438p | Review copy | Buy the book
John Grant is an unusual young man. As a child, lying in the meadows of his Scottish homeland, he discovered that he could feel the motion of Earth’s journey through space move through his body. By touching someone, he could transmit an intense sense of this endless movement. John Grant’s extra sense allowed him to feel what was around him without sight or touch, he could move suddenly, with great speed and precision. His sensitivity was first tested when his mother took an arrow through her stomach, killing her in his arms. The child, though, had a protector, Badr, a warrior who had travelled a great distance to Scotland in the 1440s to fulfil a deathbed vow made to his former comrade Patrick to protect his wife and child. Badr might have failed the mother but he will not let down John Grant, especially now it becomes clear that a vengeful Scottish clan will stop at nothing to pursue Badr and John Grant to their deaths.
As John Grant grows into a warrior of Badr’s equal, the two men travel as mercenaries across Europe, switching sides if necessary, moving towards Constantinople where, in 1453, the huge Ottoman army besieges the city’s mighty walls. It is here that John Grant can search for the secrets hidden from him by his father and for the cause of Badr’s great sadness.
But there is far more to Master of Shadows than the story of Badr and John Grant – a man always called by both of his names. There are other stories told here, including that of Lena, a woman who has been alluding an enemy for years but is now about to be caught. There is also the story of Byzantine Prince Constantine of Constantinople whose life changed forever when he jumped to break the fall of a young woman Yaminah. These elements of the novel all come together in the second half of the book as we find ourselves caught up in one of the landmark sieges of history.
Master of Shadows is the debut novel of archaeologist Neil Oliver whose non-fiction books I have enjoyed for years. While I was intrigued to read Oliver’s fiction, it did mean that I had to confront what is quite probably my least favourite period of history to read about – Byzantine history. I have no idea why I dislike this period so much – I’ve travelled to the area and love it – but, for me, Byzantine historical fiction is as appealing as cauliflower. Nevertheless, I dived in and was pleased to discover that not only did the novel open in a richly evoked late medieval Scotland but that its prose was inviting. By the time that the novel moved to Constantinople, I was involved in the individual stories, especially that of Badr and I was also interested in the sections which took us back through time to witness Badr’s history with Patrick, John Grant’s father. The movement of the narrative between the different stories and personalities means that the novel builds up quite a pace as the separate strands begin to knit together and tighten as we reach the focus of the novel – and the climax of the siege itself.
In many ways, Master of Shadows felt to me like an old-fashioned romantic adventure. There is romance in the way that Neil Oliver paints the historical locations, some of which are sensually exotic and evocative. The stories also contain familiar elements – mistaken identities, journeys, lost children – and the plot is moved along by coincidences and a sense of destiny. I did get caught up in several of the stories but I think it’s fair to say that as the novel went on I realised that this is not a book for me. It became a bit predictable and increasingly over-rich, even a little sickly after a while, and, although it does contain good battle sequences, I didn’t feel immersed in the undoubted horror that would have undoubtedly marked the siege of Constantinople. I also thought that there were too many strands to follow, too much moving back and forth in time.
Nevertheless, Master of Shadows is a well-written and atmospheric debut novel. It is certainly lively and, at times, packed with emotion. It has a strong cinematic feel, created with the most vibrant colours, and I sense it will have wide appeal even though it wasn’t for me.