The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean

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On a violently stormy night in Banff, Scotland, 1626, a young man staggers home. Taking him for a drunk, sisters Mary and Janet empty his pockets, but as they walk away he calls to them for help. Realising he has been poisoned, the sisters carry the man between them to the nearby schoolhouse and leave him at the desk of Alexander Seaton, where he is found the next morning dead.

Alexander, a fallen minister turned schoolmaster after a clandestine love affair denied him his original vocation, finds himself thrown into the investigation when his best friend, Charles Thom, is accused of the murder. Charles may have loved the same girl as the murdered man, but Alexander knows Charles does not have murder in him. He sets out on a journey to prove his friend's innocence, encountering the frenzied madness of the witch-hunt, the cruelty of men, and uncovering secrets kept in Banff for almost a decade. On his quest to discover the truth of the murder, Alexander also begins to find redemption for his own sins, breaking him out of the self loathing despondence he has been in since his fall.

Shona MacLean's debut novel is not a book, it is a time machine. To open the first page is to be transported back to Scotland in the sixteen hundreds, right in the heart of the storm. Straight away you are in the thick of the intrigue, the mystery, and the lives of the characters it revolves around. It could be gloriously sunny outside, but you would be shivering as the chill of Scotland in March settles in around your imagination.

Of course the downside of such a sudden submersion into the story is it takes a moment to orient yourself. I was a bit confused in the beginning by all the new characters and names, not made any easier by the fact that wives in Scotland at that time didn't take their husbands names. While it is good that the book is authentic, it does leave you a little in the deep end if, like me, your knowledge of the time and place is limited.

However, it quickly doesn't matter, as once you've got your head round which person is which, and have looked up the odd dialectal word MacLean throws in (using the glossary in the back) you forget you ever inhabited the modern world.

The fact is, MacLean, who has a Ph.D in History, really really knows her stuff, and writes about it with such a casual confidence that you feel almost as if she's been to 17th Century Scotland herself. Her clear passion for history, and for her country, carry you through the first few pages until suddenly it's several hours later, it's dark outside and you haven't done any of the things you had planned for the afternoon.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton is a great read, a thrilling murder mystery that will have you captivated from start to finish. Let's hope it's the start of many good things to come from Shona MacLean.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

Fans of historical fiction may also enjoy Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams.

Booklists.jpg The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.
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