THE REDEMPTION OF ALEXANDER SEATON Shona MacLean Quercus, £11.99
ALEXANDER Seaton in many ways suffers from dilemmas that afflict the contemporary male today. A promising student living in Banff, his career ambitions are thwarted when he falls in love with a girl who is destined to marry somebody else. One of his best friends, Charles, is imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit and Seaton is determined to get to the truth behind the appalling deaths of first a young man, and then a woman. Along the way, he's racked by guilt, uncertainty and bewilderment as he makes his long journey towards self-discovery and the 'redemption' of the title.
This could all be the premise for a contemporary crime thriller – except that the novel is set in the 1620s and steeped in the history of that period. And so MacLean plunges us into the done-to-death world of failed scholars, would-be ministers, fair grey-eyed maidens, tollbooths, witch-hunts, hangings, burnings, poisonings, illicit love, medicine women and tables groaning with mutton, roast hog and fish broth aplenty.
The novel is well researched. MacLean ably brings to life her hometown of Banff as it must have been in 1600, although there are several chapters where the book suffers from research overload, reading like an ancient travel memoir rather than a novel. For those that like their historical novels densely packed with fact, this will appeal. The trouble is that much of the writing tends towards the clichd and predictable. There's the "wise woman of Darkwater", all yellow eyes and missing teeth and concocter of foul potions, just as we could have predicted she would be.
Hammering noises on the door are judged "fit to wake the dead". Characters snort "contemptuously" or "derisively". There is little humour or lightness of touch, and soon the book becomes a bit of an ordeal, something to be absorbed and admired rather than a novel with a heart that can be truly enjoyed.
Although MacLean has a gift for descriptive prose, there is too much relating of Alexander's every step on his tedious travels. Although The Redemption Of Alexander Seaton educates and makes for a promising debut, the novel ultimately fails to entertain.