The Devil's Paintbrush by Jake Arnott

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The Devil's Paintbrush by Jake Arnott

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A character study, of unfortunately the less interesting main protagonist. As newsworthy as the fallen hero may be, the recreation of his life and times does not sit well with the occult side brought to his story by Arnott.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340922705

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1903, France. Sir Hector MacDonald has come from a lowly Scottish beginning to end up a rather successful soldier for the English armies, and a Major-General at that. He has travelled Africa and Asia in his career, and has fit so well into it he has become quite successful at forgetting the people, places and battles he has left behind. So quite what has forced him to leave Ceylon, and end up in Paris, about to share 24 hours with 'the Beast', Aleister Crowley? After all, that man's adage, 'do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law' is hardly fitting with the military mindset.

The first element of the book that came to my attention was sex. It's behind the scandal that MacDonald has fled, sexual energy is at the fore of a lot of the magic Crowley is living by, and you could say the artist he is dossing with is trying to paint sexuality. Nothing in this book was certificate 18, Rated-R, or whatever, however.

The second element to come to the fore was the sheer number of flashbacks. This then proves to be a character study, as Crowley allows MacDonald to enter into scenes he wasn't present for, and find some truths about himself. Meanwhile everything else that makes him what he was is brought to us with an ever-bending timeline.

Unfortunately I was a long way through the book before I realised those flashbacks etc were not going to stop. There is a newsworthiness to MacDonald's history – he fought in Darfur, Afghanistan and several other places still impacting on current affairs in 2009, but I felt this book was mis-sold.

All the artwork is designed to point to some duality between MacDonald and Crowley, but for some reason the latter is much in the background. He does not get anything like the characterisation – one chapter on his burgeoning interest in magic is all, and that is curtailed. Much of the present-times story in the book is focussing on some tome he and others are all interested in possessing, but this did not work for me.

Whether Arnott decided Crowley was just too big a character to share this book with MacDonald, I do not know. Crowley is certainly one of those characters for whom it can be said the truth is stranger than fiction. I will concede there is enough in MacDonald's character for a good novel, with his story's topicality and very shaming elements, but I don't think this is it. I don't think people buy Arnott for military history, and I was neither engaged by the major flashbacks nor inspired by the way Crowley launches him and us into them.

I did get something from this book, in that I learnt a lot about a fallen, damned hero of our past with an interesting story, which was in parts told very well. I can be grateful for that, but the way the fantastical was tagged on was by no means fantastic.

I must still thank Sceptre for sending the Bookbag a review copy. We also have a rview of The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott.

Crowley turns up in a completely different style of fictive form in Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

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Buy The Devil's Paintbrush by Jake Arnott at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Devil's Paintbrush by Jake Arnott at


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