Review: Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton

Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton

Dave Shelton’s previous book, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, was a masterpiece of the absurd. His latest book, Thirteen Chairs, is a completely different kettle of fish – it’s a compilation of creepy tales, contained in a framework where Jack, a curious boy, listens to twelve ghostly figures tell stories of death and horror.

In some ways this approach is reminiscent of the old horror anthology films like Vault of Horror or Tales from the Crypt. But where Vault of Horror gave you four tales within its framing narrative, Thirteen Chairs delivers a delicious smorgasbord of thirteen stories.

Each story is distinct – some are historical, some are modern; some are gory, others are creepy; some echo folk tales while others have more in common with Poe. Each narrator has their own quirks and individual voice.

My particular favourite (although it’s hard to choose!) was “The Girl in the Red Coat”. Small girls in red coats are inherently terrifying to anyone who’s seen Don’t Look Now, obviously, but this story unfolds beautifully, with the young narrator’s matter-of-fact description of her encounters with schoolyard monsters both natural and supernatural.

It’s the versatility of this book that impressed me the most – the stories are all so different, yet each one fits perfectly into the framing narrative, where Jack sits in the thirteenth chair, waiting for his turn to tell a tale.

The illustrations – by Dave Shelton himself, the talented git – work perfectly with the stories. Each story gets a full-page title illustration, dark and inky black.

I saved this book to read at Halloween – it seemed appropriate. It’s a book for dark evenings and chilly nights. That way you can blame your goosebumps on the cold.

Shortlisted

Great War DundeeI have no idea how to write this post! For once I’m at a loss for words.

My First World War book, The Wreck of the Argyll, has been shortlisted for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize, a competition run by Dundee Libraries in association with Cargo Publishing. The brief was quite specific – to write a children’s book about Dundee in the First World War. My story was a tale of two plucky Dundonian youngsters who foil a German spy plot, set against the real-life historical wreck of the Royal Navy armoured cruiser HMS Argyll on the reef near the Bell Rock Lighthouse.

I’m tremendously excited by this, as you can imagine! There are just three books that have been selected for the shortlist, and in March next year, I’ll find out whether my book or one of the other two stories has won the prize, which includes publication by Cargo Publishing. Even if I don’t win, it’s amazing to have been selected as part of such a small shortlist, and you can be assured that any future submissions I make to agents will proudly proclaim that I was shortlisted for this competition.

Dundee is a city that’s building a real cultural reputation for itself. This isn’t the first Dundee literary competition – the Dundee International Book Prize has been running for over 10 years. There is a V&A Museum of Design forthcoming in 2017, a £45 million project set in a spectacular Kengo Kuma-designed building. The award ceremony for the Great War book competition will be held at Discovery Point, an exhibition and museum built around Captain Scott’s ship the Discovery – coincidentally, this is my partner Sandra’s favourite part of her native Dundee. I lived in Dundee for a year when I was at Dundee University doing my Master’s degree (more years ago than I care to remember), and every year when we visit Sandra’s family I’m amazed at how much the city is changing.

It’s quite an honour to be part of this cultural renaissance, even in just a small way.

Review: Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret by D.D. Everest

Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret

Let’s get one thing out of the way, before we start the review proper. It is almost completely impossible to write a review of Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret without using the words “Harry” or “Potter”. The titular character is an orphan who has grown up in the care of a relative who does not want him to know that his parents belonged to a magical society that runs parallel to (and hidden from) modern Britain. He has a very British, slightly old-fashioned first name, and a common Anglo-Saxon surname. On his birthday, he receives a mysterious letter that opens his eyes to his heritage, and launches him on an adventure into a strange institution where he is taught the ways of magic; along the way, he makes friends with a boy and a girl who share his gifts, discovers that he has an unusual magical language ability, and foils the plans of a dark wizard to seize a powerful magical artefact.

So let’s just take it as read that there are an enormous number of similarities to Harry Potter, and judge the book on its own merits.

Archie Greene lives with his Gran. On his twelfth birthday, a mysterious book arrives in the post, along with a letter that tells him to take it to a particular bookshop in Oxford. Archie’s Gran tells him to go, and to visit his relatives the Foxes, who (by no coincidence, as you will see) live in Oxford. It turns out the bookshop is a front organisation for the Museum of Magical Miscellany, an institution dedicated to the location and preservation of the magical books that survived the fire in the Great Library of Alexandria in 48BC. Archie discovers that his aunt, uncle and two cousins Thistle and Bramble are all involved in this magical society, and within a short time he himself becomes an apprentice to Old Zeb the bookbinder. Archie discovers that he has the rare magical ability to speak to books – he’s a book whisperer – and soon there are rum goings-on and dark deeds afoot. Does it have anything to do with the book he received on his birthday? What does it mean, that he’s the first book whisperer for hundreds of years?

There are magical creatures, suspicious magicians, and dark family secrets as well as burgeoning friendship with his cousins Thistle and Bramble. Archie has to learn quickly and trust his courage to overcome all the obstacles in his path and foil the plots of the evil wizards.

The mythological background is nicely thought out. The magic of the world of Archie Greene is based on books – so anyone who had a sneaking suspicion that books were somehow magical is going to feel right at home. Books can talk – if you’re a book whisperer, that is – and fly, and manifest heroes and monsters from their pages. The history of these magical books goes back thousands of years to the Great Library of Alexandria – in this history of the world, Alexander the Great wasn’t just a conqueror, but also a collector of magical artefacts, and magical books in particular. When the library burnt in 48BC, the magical books were corrupted by the dark wizard Barzak’s sorcery, so were brought to Oxford, where the Museum of Magical Miscellany was set up to keep them safe. Evil wizards known as “Greaders” – greedy readers – still try to get their hands on the most powerful of books, even though the damage they could cause is almost without limit.

On the clasp of Archie’s book, and on the title page of this book, is a symbol:

monas hieroglyphica

This is an actual magical symbol, the Monas Hieroglyphica of Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan magician and court astrologer. It symbolises the unity of the cosmos – in it, you can find the astrological symbols for the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – Uranus and Neptune hadn’t been discovered when Dr Dee was alive. The real Dr Dee is mostly known for being duped by a charlatan called Edward Kelley who convinced Dee that he had the power to communicate with celestial beings, including teaching him Enochian, the language of the angels.

Dr Dee plays an important part in the story – and just like in the real history of Dr Dee, he is duped by a miscreant playing on his desire to learn Enochian.

I liked these little touches of magical mythology in the book, from the concept of Alexander the Great rampaging across the globe in his search for magical books to Dr Dee’s gullibility and desire for esoteric knowledge leading him astray. These touches add a depth to the book that raise it above the Harry Potter clone that it might otherwise have become. Even without those, however, the book has a strong story, with interesting, colourful characters and a cracking pace – it’s a real page-turner of the book, and I devoured it in three sittings.

Let’s not forget about the illustrations – James de la Rue has produced some stellar work here. The full-page illustrations dotted throughout the book complement the text perfectly. I particularly like the way he draws bookshelves – the picture of the bookshop in Chapter 22, A Midnight Excursion, with its shadowy hatching on the books is claustrophobic and atmospheric, while the illustration in Chapter 30, Magic Spills, where the books serve as the backdrop to the monsters bursting from their pages, is dynamic and full of energy. You can see some of his work, including some of the illustrations from Archie Greene, (although unfortunately not the two I mentioned) on his website.

In short, forget about Potter, and spend some time in the company of young Mr Greene for a change. It’ll be a magical experience.

21 years

On October 4th, 1993, which is 21 years ago today, I became a professional writer.

Technically, I’d been paid for writing before – in June 1990, when I was 19 years old, a small-press magazine agreed to pay me £13.75 (0.5p a word) for my short story The View from the Window. But one cheque doesn’t make you a professional.

So I consider today to be the 21st anniversary of me becoming a writer. For the past two-and-a-bit decades, every penny I’ve earned has been through putting one word after another. Words have fed, clothed, housed, and entertained me. I hate to think how many thousands of words I’ve produced over the years. How many pages.

Unfortunately, the words that I’m paid to produce are technical words in technical manuals. I’d much rather I made a living through writing fiction, but that’s not the way things have turned out. Despite being made redundant three times, I’ve always found it relatively easy to make a living through technical writing. By contrast, that £13.75 I made for my first short story is the only money I’ve ever made writing fiction.

We were digging through some boxes recently and found an album of photos that we took in Rome in 1991. My girlfriend was studying art history, and I was studying classics, so we spent the best part of a month living in a tent just off the Via Aurelia, filling our days with visits to archaeological sites and tracking down Berninis and Caravaggios. The young man I was then had no idea he was going to spend 21 years as a technical author. What would he have thought? He wanted to be a proper writer. Have I disappointed him? Or did he realise, even back then, that making it as a writer was an unlikely outcome? I can’t remember. Would he be angry at all the years I’ve wasted by not taking fiction writing seriously? I mean, I’m 44 years old, and I only managed to complete my first novel two years ago. If I’d started ten or fifteen years earlier, I might have been published by now.

Ha! He was the one who started all those novels in university and didn’t finish them! If he’s disappointed in me, then I can be a bit miffed with him, too. The slacker.

Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

These days Haruki Murakami is so well known that his book jackets simply say “Murakami”. Which is a bit weird, as there’s another author Murakami – Ryu – who, while not as quite popular, is certainly not unknown, with works like Coin Locker Babies and Audition – which was made into a film – in his catalogue.

In fact, our household is divided down the middle. When I say “Murakami”, I mean Haruki, while when my partner says “Murakami”, she means Ryu.

Nevertheless, a new Murakami, H., book is a publishing event. Foyles in London had a midnight opening for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Living in Leicester, that’s not something I could take part in, but since 1Q84 I’ve been buying Murakami in ebook format anyway, so my copy was automagically delivered to my Kindle overnight.

I think it’s fair to say that if you like Murakami, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never been a fan, this book won’t convince you otherwise. It’s full of traditional Murkami touches, although the parallel worlds have been toned down (although, it seems, not removed altogether) and there are no cats at all. No scenes of spaghetti-cooking, either. But still, it’s unmistakably Murakami. Where 1Q84 had Janáček’s Sinfonietta as its musical theme, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage has Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” from his Years of Pilgrimage suite.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a recognisable Murakami protagonist, too. He is a man alone and lonely, neither young nor old, who is scarred by an event when he was young. He was part of a close-knit group of five people, three boys and two girls, who were inseparable until suddenly they all told him, without explanation, that they never wanted to see him again. This event, this betrayal, this sudden and catastrophic desertion, defines the emotional journey of the rest of his life.

All four of his friends have surnames that include a colour in their name – Akamatsu, red pine; Oumi, blue sea; Shirane, white root; and Kurono, black field. Only Tsukuru Tazaki has a surname that doesn’t have a colour in it; it becomes a joke amongst them – Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki. But it’s a joke that serves to separate him from his friends, even if just a fraction. Even in the close-knit group, he’s an outsider. So when he’s cast out from the group, he accepts it.

By the time of the events of the book, he’s in his 30s. It’s been sixteen years since he was deserted by his friends, and he’s had difficulty forming any lasting relationships. He’s prompted by a new relationship with a woman called Sara to go back to his home town and find out just why his friends deserted him.

For me, it’s a book about the differences between our perception of ourselves and the way other people perceive us. Even in the close-knit group of friends, Tsukuru Tazaki’s perception of himself was completely different to the way his friends perceived him. Neither viewpoint is ever entirely correct, though. Even though we live inside our own heads, we’re often completely clueless about our own characters, our strengths and weaknesses. While other people don’t have that privileged inside view, they at least have the benefit of an external perspective. The truth is often somewhere in between.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage ends without resolution, with questions unanswered, such as what exactly happened to Shiro, or what will happen with Tsukuru Tazaki’s relationship with Sara. But nevertheless it’s a satisfying conclusion that leaves you thinking about the book long after you’ve turned the last page.

Competition time

In addition to submitting my work to agents in the (probably futile) hope of eventually getting a publishing deal through that route, I’ve sent my novels to a handful of competitions.

The good thing about competitions is that you know that there is an actual possibility of getting published; that one person out of all the entries will actually make it into print. The odds are (massively) against me, of course, but they’re definitely no worse than when I submit to agents.

Last year I sent Tales of the Ancient Rabbits to the Chicken House competition. I have to admit, I was a bit a sad case when the day for the long list announcement came around, and I was on the Chicken House website hitting refresh over and over until the inevitable disappointment came.

This year, I’ve giving the Chicken House competition a miss. The disappointment of missing out last year was one factor, but the other factor is the onerous nature of the submission guidelines. They expect the full printed manuscript, bound with an elastic band, in a cardboard wallet, with a postcard for acknowledgement. I don’t have a printer capable of getting through a novel-length print run, so I had to get a USB stick and take a PDF to a local copy shop. It took ages and cost a fortune. Even finding an elastic band of the right size was a pain. The first pack I bought had been on the shelves so long they snapped as soon as I tried to put them on my manuscript. As for blank postcards – I just couldn’t find anywhere that sold them any more, so I had to print my own onto card and cut it down to size. In this era of digital communication, it all just seemed so anachronistic.

Fortunately most competitions allow electronic entries these days.

This year, I’ve entered The Panopticon Papers in the Scholastic Montegrappa competition, which publishes its shortlist in a couple of weeks. I’ve also entered it in the Bloomsbury/National Literacy Trust competition, which won’t publish its shortlist until March next year. Being published by the prestigious Scholastic or Bloomsbury almost overshadows the prize money on offer: Scholastic published Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and Bloomsbury published J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

I’ve also written a novel specifically for the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize Competition, The Wreck of the Argyll, which announces its winner (no shortlist, it seems) in March next year. The competition is run in partnership with Cargo Publishing, an absolutely splendid independent Scottish publisher. They’ve got works by Mark Z. Danielewski and the incomparable Alasdair Gray in their catalogue. Tony Black’s The Last Tiger is on my To Be Read list, too. They’re a small publisher making a big impact.

Prize money would be nice. Getting published would be much nicer. Becoming a stable-mate to Pullman, Rowling or Alasdair Gray – now that would be priceless.

The first million is the hardest

They say the first million is the hardest. They’re talking about money, of course, but I imagine it’s the same with wordcount. In which case, I’m about a quarter of the way to my first million.

Earlier this week, I finished the first draft of The Wreck of the Argyll, my children’s novel set in Dundee during the First World War. It’s a short book – just under 32,000 words – but it was almost a surprise when I realised that it was actually my fifth completed manuscript. That’s not bad for a touch over two years – I started The Chimney Rabbit in March 2012 – especially when you consider I’ve stalled badly a few times. (Half-way through The Chimney Rabbit, I got stuck, and didn’t write for several months.)

I just totted up the wordcount of my five novels, and it comes to a smidgeon over 251,000 words. Just over a quarter of a million. I’m not counting any of my earlier work, my short stories, or any of the started, stalled, and abandoned novels that clutter up my archive – only novels that have been completed. Or completed to first draft, anyway.

Of course, the problem is still that I don’t know if any of these quarter million words are any good. Success on the path to publication has been exactly zero – not even an encouraging nibble. But still. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Even if it’s all rubbish, it’s taken a certain amount of application to write a quarter of a million words over five books, so at least I can be proud of the effort, if not the results. I don’t know if being proud of the effort is enough motivation to keep me writing over the next few years, but you never know.

I’ll never have a million pounds, but at this rate I might reach a million words by sometime in 2020.

Juggling projects

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post, but that’s because I’ve been pretty busy with my other writing projects recently. I completed my conversion of Tales of the Ancient Rabbits into The Panopticon Papers and sent it off to a handful of literary agents and a couple of competitions. So far it’s meeting the same fate as my other submissions, but c’est la vie.

I started some preparatory planning for the second draft of The Dragon on the Tower, but I’ve been deliberately holding off doing any writing until a reasonable amount of time has passed and I can look at it with fresh eyes. I’ve got some reservations about this book, and my partner, who is my primary beta-reader, made some suggestions about how to improve it that are going to take a fair bit of rework. I’d also made a bit of a mistake in my historical chronology, so I read another book about Dark Age Scotland (Tim Clarkson’s The Makers of Scotland) to get the details of the period straight in my head.

To fill in the time, I tried my hand at a short story – but it didn’t go particularly well. I’d intended it to be very short, perhaps in the 1500 – 2000 word range, but when I reached 2000 words while hardly scratching the surface of the story I wanted to tell, I decided that perhaps I needed to take a step back and do some proper planning on this one before it turned into a novella. Short stories used to be so easy! I used to be able to sit down at the keyboard and just bash out a story. Writing all these novels has messed up my short story writing abilities.

Having sent The Panopticon Papers to a couple of competitions, I was having a search for more children’s fiction competitions when I came across the Great War Dundee Children’s Book Prize Competition – where the brief is to write a children’s book about Dundee during the First World War. “Oh well,” I thought. “My book is about Florence in an alternate 1800s, not Dundee in the First World War.” But then I started idly speculating about what I’d write about if I had the time. And then I thought a bit more. And started taking some notes. And before I knew what I was doing, I’d written a plan for a children’s book set in Dundee during the First World War.

“Ah, but I don’t have enough time to write it,” I said to myself. The deadline is at the end of August. That’s not much time to get a whole book written and through at least one subsequent draft. But the idea and the plan wouldn’t let go of me, so I started writing. And here I am, two-thirds of the way through the story, with over a month left before the closing date. I’m still going to be cutting it close, but if I can keep up my momentum, I might be in with a chance. If I don’t make the deadline, so be it. It’ll be another few tens of thousands of words under my belt, my fifth completed novel, and I can stick it in a drawer until I’ve got a free slot for submitting to literary agents – I only submit to a handful of agents at a time, and I don’t plan on having two different novels making the rounds at the same time, so that might be some time off.

Keeping all these projects going is a bit of a struggle, and unfortunately it’s this blog that’s suffered. I’ve read some cracking stuff lately that I wish I could find time to review – Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers, Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, and the free digital comic Moose Kid Comics, which is as mad as a sack of badgers.

Let’s not talk about the short story I wrote a while back that I might try to polish to submit to yet another competition…

A change of setting

The first three books I wrote were set in the same world – a pseudo-Victorian era Europe, where humans lived and worked alongside anthropomorphic rabbits, dogs, cats, bears, mice, and other animals. The first book, The Chimney Rabbit, was set in The Great City, which was basically London with the serial numbers filed off. The second book was a direct sequel, set once again in pseudo-London, incorporating the development of my version of the London Underground. Both books had plots that were tied inextricably to the layered society I’d created, where humans were in charge, larger animals like wolves and bears owned the businesses, cats and dogs ran the streets, and rabbits were stuffed up chimneys and treated like dirt. The second book, The Chimney Rabbit and the Underground Mice, introduced the dirty sooty mice from the Underground, who were considered beneath even chimney rabbits.

The third book, Tales of the Ancient Rabbits, was slightly different. It was a prequel set in The City of Flowers (Florence) which was being attacked by the forces of Lagoon City (Venice). Our heroes made their way to Tower Port (Pisa) then The City of Light (Paris) before finally arriving in London, or The Great City as it was known in my world. The hero was a rabbit, and there were dogs and cats and badgers and wolves, but the species of the characters wasn’t important to the story.

So when The Chimney Rabbit came to the end of its lifecycle of submissions to agents, and I shelved it indefinitely, I took another look at Tales of the Ancient Rabbits. The whole idea was that it would serve either as a prequel or as a standalone adventure – with The Chimney Rabbit now out of the picture, Tales just had to serve as  a story in its own right. In that case, did it have to be set in The City of Flowers – why not just set it in Florence? Did Roberto have to be a rabbit, or could he just be a boy?

Anthropomorphic animal stories are out of fashion these days. After Tales failed to find much favour with agents or competition judges, I wondered what would happen if I removed the anthropomorphic element.

So began the de-furrification of Tales of the Ancient Rabbits. I gave everyone surnames rather than “Signor Rabbit”, changed all the reference to “paws” to “hands”, and named all of the locations back to what they’d all secretly been anyway. But there was one more thing – I needed a new title, one that didn’t mention rabbits. Fortunately I’d included a MacGuffin.

Alfred Hitchcock said a MacGuffin was:

…the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.

In the book I have a secret organisation called The Panopticon, and they’re trying to keep some papers from falling into enemy hands. And so Tales of the Ancient Rabbits became The Panopticon Papers.

I’m going to run through another edit, then send The Panopticon Papers out to a few agents to see if I get any nibbles. To be honest, I don’t expect anyone to bite – Tales already had its chance, but it will be interesting to see if Panopticon fares any better.

I’ve already polished the first 5000 words for a competition entry. The only problem is, it’s the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing, which is sponsored by luxury pen company Montegrappa. Who are based in Venice. Who are now the villains in my book.

Somehow I don’t think that’ll go down well with the judges, who won’t realise that I actually really like Venice (we went there on holiday a few years back, and it was amazing) and that Venice are only the aggressors by sheer chance!

Venice

I might have got away it if I’d left it as Lagoon City.

Review: Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall

Shadow of the Wolf

Robin Hood, in his many forms, has been an influence for virtually my whole life. The first film my parents ever took me to see at the cinema was Disney’s 1973 version, with anthropomorphic foxes, bears and wolves taking the parts of Robin, Marian, the Merry Men and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. The 1984 TV series Robin of Sherwood was essential viewing in our house, and a ripe topic of playground conversation. (One of my school friends insisted the lyrics to the Clannad title song ran “Robin, be-diddly-bom” rather than the more commonly-accepted “Robin, the hooded man”.)

I can’t claim to have seen all the film or TV adaptations – there are hundreds! – but I’ve certainly seen my fair share. I still maintain that the 1991 Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is the movie with the greatest trailer-to-feature quality drop off ever. Seriously – the trailer is incredible. A utterly stunning piece of film-making. Edge of the seat stuff. While the movie itself… not even Morgan Freeman or Alan Rickman can save it. More recently, I gave up on the 2006 BBC series after it jumped the shark at the end of the second season.

Robin

A few years ago, we took a trip to Sherwood Forest. It’s a kid-friendly tourist trap, all plastic bow-and-arrow sets and overpriced refreshments, but still… you come upon the thousand-year-old Major Oak, where legend says Robin Hood once hid, and the history and myth shine through. It’s still a magical place, despite the commercialisation.

Major Oak

The Major Oak

I liked the Hollywood movie posters in the visitor centre restaurant, too. For me, Robin Hood has always been a star of the screen. I’m not sure I’ve read many books on the legend – not since my Ladybird book when I was a very small boy, anyway. I mean, what is there to say? What could you possibly put in a novel about Robin Hood that hasn’t been said a hundred times before?

Which brings me to Shadow of the Wolf, by Tim Hall.

I was lucky enough to get an advance proof when David Fickling Books, the publisher, was giving away copies on Twitter. When you’re given an opportunity to read a book before everyone else, you don’t just stick it on your shelf to wait its turn, so I started reading as soon as it arrived in the post.

And I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t that it was bad. Tim Hall has some stylistic quirks that I’m not keen on (for example, every once in a while he’ll drop into present tense for a few paragraphs, and while I can see he’s doing it for effect, I really don’t like it) but the story just wasn’t gripping me. The names were familiar – Robin Loxley and Marian – but the book begins with Robin and Marian as little children. The story is well enough told, but it’s Robin Hood – we’ve seen it all before. We’ve got hints of the supernatural, but that was popularised in the mythos by Robin of Sherwood back in the 1980s, which inextricably tied the myths of Herne the Hunter and Robin Hood. There’s a boot-camp section, where young Robin joins up with a band of trainee knights, forming friendships and earning rivalries. It’s nothing new.

I was enjoying the book. But for the first two hundred pages, my internal rating was hovering around the 3/5 mark. B-minus. Shows promise.

And then.

Just before the half-way point of the book, two hundred or so pages in, it all changes. Robin fails, and falls, and is defeated utterly. He’s destroyed. Ruined. Crippled.

And that just makes him more dangerous.

Robin of Sherwood hinted at a supernatural element to the legend. Shadow of the Wolf takes this premise and kicks it into orbit. Robin’s journey deeper and deeper into the forest, where gods walk as men, as women, and as beasts, tears apart his humanity, and leaves him more of an elemental than a man. A combination of Zatoichi and Swamp Thing.

It’s only Marian that connects him to the world of humanity, and only Marian that can hold him back from becoming a savage demon of the forest. Not that Marian is a shrinking violet, either – Tim Hall’s vision of Marian isn’t someone you’d ever want to cross. Not if you wanted to live.

Shadow of the Wolf resembles a superhero origin story more than it resembles Errol Flynn clad in Lincoln green, slapping his thigh and laughing heartily. It’s dark, and it’s violent, and it displays enormous humanity by throwing Robin’s nature into sharp relief against the darks shadows of inhumanity that surge within him.

Towards the end, we’re guided back towards more familiar territory, although the band of forest outlaws that include Will Scarlett and Much could never be called “merry men”, but the path we’ve taken to get to that point, the path through the darkest part of the forest, makes it feel like we’ve earned it.

Shadow of the Wolf is the first in a trilogy. If the next two books can keep up the momentum that begins after the first 200 pages, it has the potential to be something very special indeed.