A slow start. Unattractive characters. But hang on in there- it'll all make sense later on.
But here's the problem: if I say anything about what happens next it'll be a spoiler. This is a book full of twists and surprises.
So my hands are tied. I don't suppose I'm giving too much away if I say you're in for a Rashomon experience. Four narrators, all with a different angle on the same story. Reliable or unreliable- well- what do you think?
We've touched down in mid 17th century Oxford. The monarchy has been restored but the issues and hatreds of the Civil War are still bubbling under. We're living in a police state. Boy, you'd better conform or you're not going to get that preferment. A lot of the characters are real people- famous people like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Christopher Wren- and not so famous people like Cromwell's spymaster John Thurloe (think George Smiley only darker). This is a mystery novel, right? Sort of Brother Cadfael but a lot more intellectual? Erm, yes- so far as it goes...
Lots of historical detail. TMI. Lice, mud, vomit, baths once a quarter- but only if you're particularly fastidious about personal hygiene.
But, of course you have to suspend a whole truckload of disbelief. These are 17th century people writing as no 17th century person ever wrote- using narrative techniques that were only developed in the 19th century. Ah well, novels are always pretending to be things they're not. Does David Copperfield convince as an Autobiography? No, not really.
But the 17th century mindset comes across convincingly. No Mary Sues round here. These narrators believe in some pretty screwy things. And there are lots of lovely, sly jokes at their expense.
So, a big, historical, mystery novel- very ambitious- a bit like Name of the Rose in fact? Well yes- and that comparison should give us pause. Because the Name of the Rose- though it works excellently well as a mystery- is also something else. And this? Well the same applies. At the heart of the mystery nestles a very different kind of story- but exactly what kind of story doesn't become apparent until the last few pages. All I'm going to say is I found the climactic revelation extremely moving.
Have I said too much? I hope not.