‘Your father made me your guardian,’ he said. ‘And I count myself the luckiest of men. I would ask that you take care of my daughter if needs be – see to it that she is safe.’
‘Where would I find her?’ asked John Grant. He felt as though he was playing along with a game of make-believe.
‘At the centre of the world,’ said Badr.
With the release of ‘Master of Shadows’ in September, the historian and TV presenter Neil Oliver has ventured for the first time into the realm of fiction. Having been a fan of his work for some time, I was keen to get hold of a copy, and I finished reading it last week.
I’m glad to say that I wasn’t disappointed.
There are always tell-tale signs when you’ve found a good book, and in my case these appear as abandoned cups of tea, forgotten parcels on the hall table, unanswered emails, and a hungry cat. (Don’t worry, I have fed her!)
The opening scene leaves you breathless, and the subsequent strands of story are woven slowly but carefully into a brilliant and richly textured cloth.
‘Master of Shadows’ is set in the 15th century, a time of brutal justice – and equally brutal injustice – no matter whether you’re fleeing for your life in the lowlands of Scotland, standing on the heaving deck of a ship in the Mediterranean, or picking your way along the dusty pilgrims’ path to Santiago de Compostela. In particular, 1453 is not a great year to be in Constantinople; but this is precisely where all the protagonists are ultimately drawn, for good or for bad. And it’s got to be said that some of their intentions are very bad indeed.
The novel’s central character is John Grant, a man with unusual gifts that stem from a heightened awareness of his own place in the cosmos. There’s no real certainty about his parentage, but you just know that he’s destined for an exciting life. And when he does meet one of his relatives, the revelation of her true identity is a stroke of absolute genius. I cannot tell you any more.
“She had been something clean – something honest. Into a war of sullied men and tainted politics she had arrived from nowhere like a blade freshly forged and mill-sharpened.”
Meanwhile, languishing in the golden city by the Sea of Marmara is Constantine, a young man whose imagination soars above the limitations of his body. He is bound in love and honour to a girl who holds his fate in her hands. Their world is about to fall in on them, as the Turks lay siege to Constantinople, and the pressure is almost suffocating.
Who is the master of shadows? Is it Constantine, absorbed in creating a puppet-theatre as the Sultan’s hordes gather at his gates? Is it John Grant, hearing the pulse of the Earth and melting into the darkness like a wraith? Or is it the enigmatic Lena, a woman with a burning secret and a lethal way with knives?
If I’m being hyper-critical, I could probably find a few things about it that I don’t like, but none of them really matter. It’s compelling from beginning to end. What Oliver is so good at is capturing a moment almost in slow motion: you feel as if you’re circling around it, breathless, watching from all angles at once. He is a master of metaphor, and acutely observant.
“…it was like being in the crystalline heart of a dark jewel. There were shafts and sheets of brightness from windows high above, but always too there were defiant, seductive corners of scented shadows, home to all the prayers left unanswered.” Describing the Church of St Sophia, Constantinople
He is also brilliant – perhaps not surprisingly – at the historical scene-setting. When Mehmet and his engineers are forging their weapon of war, a colossal bombard that has to be dragged with infinite and painstaking slowness towards the gates of Constantinople, you just know that the military details are going to be correct. And when John Grant is crouching in a dark burial chamber, treading gingerly around skulls that were placed there thousands of years before, you get the feeling that it’s a familiar scenario for Oliver himself, who has probably crawled into more claustrophobic passage graves than he cares to think about.
The characters themselves are a complex blend of fact, fiction and speculation in varying degrees; I wonder if writing the book was a liberating experience, giving full rein to imagination and creativity.
Bold, ambitious, gripping – ‘Master of Shadows’ is all of these, switching from gentleness to brutality in the flick of a karambit. It has romance, passion and suspense, and some deliciously surprising twists. The story – its power and scale – would translate readily into a film. I’m wondering if Neil Oliver has started on the sequel yet.
‘Master of Shadows’ by Neil Oliver is published by Orion Books, available in hardback and paperback (find it on Amazon). ISBN 978 1 4091 5811 0