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Fictional Saga / Coming of Age
I first made the acquaintance of Calumny Spinks in The Bitter Trade, a book set in the late 17th century London. At the time, Calumny was a redheaded, somewhat ugly and unloved adolescent, who couldn’t quite understand why his father was so secretive about his past — or why his own father seemed determined to set Calumny up to fail. While I would warmly recommend that the prospective reader starts with The Bitter Trade – if nothing else because it’s a great read – Scatterwood stands perfectly well on its own, with enough of the relevant backstory presented.
This time round, Calumny is no longer an adolescent. Yes, he is still very young, yes he is still as redheaded as ever, but his experiences have made him wise beyond his years, and he is doing his best to keep himself and his little family afloat in a London defined by religious intolerance and the constant fear of a Jacobite counterrevolution, thereby toppling Dutch William from the throne.
Calumny has made some mistakes in his previous life, and this time round it is payback time, which is why Calumny is tricked by people whom he trusts into undertaking a dangerous undercover mission in Jamaica. Mind you, no one tells him just how dangerous his mission is, or that it will involve huge amounts of physical pain and humiliation. Or that his best friend will be an active participant in inflicting said pain, thereby proving that some friends are far worse than your enemies.
His new taskmasters have Calumny over a barrel. Unless he delivers, his Irish woman and her little daughter will be separated from each other and transported to the New World as indentures, there work and die. For now, they languish in the Tower, and only if Calumny delivers do they go free.
And there, dear readers, is the background to this fast-paced adventure through the heat-infested landscape of 17th century Jamaica, all the way from decadent Port Royal, through endless fields of sugarcane to the jungles that clamber up Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. Mr Alexander delivers a vivid description of his setting and complements this with a colourful set of characters, all the way from escaped slaves to world-weary whores who can’t be bothered to advertise their wares beyond hitching up their skirts to reveal their privates to the blasé passer-bys.
Jamaica is home to many a determined Jacobite, some of whom are rich enough to pose a real threat to William, and Mr Alexander skilfully guides the readers through this tangled web of loyalties and treachery, where it becomes more and more apparent that almost everyone, no matter whose side they’re on, is there to look after number one. Well, with the exception of Calumny, who has no choice but to try and finish his mission as otherwise his woman and stepchild will suffer for it.
Calumny Spinks is a wonderful creation: he is young, he is brave, he stays true to those he loves—and has a heart big enough to add to that little group as he tumbles through life. There are several occasions when said tumbles come close to costing Calumny his life, which makes it difficult to put this book down. Add to Calumny a diverse and well-developed set of supporting characters, and this is a novel that pulsates with life. And blood. And death.
In Scatterwood, Mr Alexander has wrought an intricate tale. With an effortless prose, crisp dialogue and beautiful descriptive writing, he has created a window into the turbulent world of 17th century Jamaica, complete with everything from the stench of rotting carcasses to the sheer joie-de-vivre that once defined Port Royal. Bravo, Mr Alexander. Bravo!
© Anna Belfrage
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