Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, by Shona MacLean. Historical Fiction Review

Penguin Books, Published 2008, ISBN 978-0-14-317008-2, 291 pages.

Shona MacLean's debut historical fiction novel, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, is set in Banff, located in the Scottish Highlands.  The author, who holds a Ph.D in History from the University of Aberdeen, makes her home in Banff.  Her obvious love for her home town and historical knowledge of Banff shines in this novel.

Narrated in the voice of Alexander Seaton, the entire novel encompasses less than 2 weeks in March, 1626.  

Alexander Seaton is a young man with aspirations to become a minister.  He successfully completes the requisite education and procedures in becoming a minister until the last challenge:  the final trials when he is judged by the large local landowners and kirk session (the minister and elders).  It is at the final trials that devastating evidence against Alexander's suitability as a minister is presented by a neighboring laird.

Alexander subsequently experiences a 6 month period of debauchery and drunkenness, which earns him several stints on a public stool as penance.  Further self-shame ensues.

I had difficulty with Alexander's relentless self-condemnation until I did some research and realized an educated man graduated from divinity school would indeed believe himself damned and worthless during this era of Scottish history.

It is important to understand Presbyterianism had a strong hold in Scotland at this time and religious beliefs were strictly adhered to.  In the Redemption of Alexander Seaton, a baillie and his session clerk scour the town day and night seeking residents who violate principles of morals and faith.

Although King Charles 1 of England and Scotland is less inclined than his predecessor to actively seek out witches, witchmongering is still alive and well in Banff, as is later depicted in the novel.  It is a time in history when superstitions and accusations were actively pursued with devastating results.  Undesirables were often formally "run out of town" and not to return "upon pain of death".   "The vulnerable and friendless were well advised not to call attention upon themselves in times of ill fortune".

Denied his opportunity to practice as a minister, Alexander accepts a position as undermaster at the grammar school.  Word of his failure to pass the final trials and ill-behavior is soon well-known throughout the kirk and Alexander experiences ostracism by his fellow townspeople with the exception of a few loyal friends, who include the local doctor and music master.

On a Monday night, after drinks at the tavern with the doctor and music master, a storm of furious proportions rages as Alexander makes his way home.  He passes a fellow traveler who hails Alexander and then falls to his knees in obvious distress.  Alexander ignores the supposed drunk and his own conscience and goes to his bed.

The next morning, the traveler is found dead sprawled across Alexander's desk amid vomit.  It is soon learned the deceased is Patrick Davidson, the apothecary's apprentice.  Hence begins the mystery.  Alexander's friend, music master Charles Thom, has long held an affection for the apothecary' daughter, Marion.  Marion, however, has developed an attachment to Patrick Davidson.

Charles Thom is imprisoned on suspicion of murdering Davidson, who supplanted him in Marion's heart.  Alexander Seaton feels it is the will of God that he exonerate Thom and, thus, becomes involved in a web of intrigue, suspicions and the need to locate a rare source of poison.  Seaton single-mindedly devotes himself to his mission.

Murders - present, past and future - populate The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, further fueling already heightened superstitions.

Woven into The Redemption of Alexander Seaton are several characters:  elite citizens, town whores, beggars, a servant girl impregnated unwillingly by her master, a wild hermit woman and deceased wives.

Shona MacLean seamlessly and artfully incorporates emotions, political intrigue, setting, events and crucial background into The Redemption of Alexander Seaton.  She keeps you turning pages as she keeps you in suspense for the next tidbet.

An excellent debut novel in which Shona MacLean keeps the reader firmly planted in 1626.  I will definitely read her next novel, A Game of Sorrows (released March, 2010), once again featuring Alexander Seaton.

Rating:  4 Stars **** (excellent)

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