Orion | 2020 (20 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Dance of the Serpents is the sixth novel in the fabulous Frey and McGray series. Whereas others were more self-contained, this novel does rely on you having read previous books, especially the second (A Fever of the Blood), and so I would recommend you do that before reading this review. Suitably warned, I shall continue!
The Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly, a subdivision of Edinburgh’s police force and hidden away in its basement, is in trouble. It’s run by English inspector Ian Frey and his boss, the Scottish and tartan clad ‘Nine Nails’ McGray and, quite apart from being an embarrassment to their superiors, they are now discovering that killing Queen Victoria’s favourite witch and medium (in a previous book presenting their cases) may well seal their fate. The Queen is after their blood, aided and abetted by her particularly unpleasant Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and his thugs. The two detectives are given an ultimatum – they must find Queen Victoria a new witch before Christmas Eve, the night when Victoria likes to communicate with Prince Albert, or they’ll be secretly executed. Unfortunately, this is only a few days away. With the help of a cursed young woman who is pursued by vengeful witches and the less than forthcoming assistance of McGray’s taumatised and silent sister, McGray and Frey undertake a pursuit of witches across England and Scotland, to distant islands and palaces. And all the time, the clock ticks.
I am such a huge fan of this series and have loved each of them. The Dance of the Serpents is no different but it is a little different from the previous books in that there isn’t a particular case to solve just a situation to correct, which puts our heroes in a great deal of danger. It also very much depends on the reader having enjoyed the previous novels, which is no difficulty whatsoever as these are addictive reads. But what makes these books so fantastic is every bit as evident here – the characters of Frey and McGray.
The personalities of our two detectives, so opposite to one another in absolutely every way, and the banter between them is brilliant and so many times I burst out laughing. The situations they find themselves in can be ridiculously weird and terrifyingly dangerous, not helped by the fact that even the supernatural wants to do them in, and we are engrossed. We’ve spent a few years with them now. We know them well but we are also well aware that there’s a lot more to learn from them. Maybe they don’t quite trust us yet. But on occasion they let down the barriers and there are glimpses of feeling, even, dare I say, friendship between the two men. That doesn’t stop McGray calling Frey names. Frey is our narrator and so his frustration and bewilderment at his partner in solving supernaturally-tinged crimes is extremely amusing.
I love the locations as well and they are particularly evocative in The Dance of the Serpents as we head across Scotland on the trail of the witches to the Orkneys – which isn’t great because Nine Nails gets seasick just walking the gangway on to a boat. I love the places which are so moodily and atmospherically described. And then there’s the other world of palaces when we find ourselves in Victoria’s extraordinary presence. What a fabulous chapter that is!
These books are always a delight and I loved The Dance of the Serpents. I really enjoy the late Victorian setting and then the blend of crime and supernatural possibilities and shivers. Oscar de Muriel writes so well. I love how he portrays his characters, male and female. They are larger than life in many ways and they’re all the more fun to read. His witches are terrifying…. just how I like them. Excellent!