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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Alexander Seaton Sequence by S. G. Maclean



These four novels, set in Scotland and Ulster in the 1620s and 1630s, all feature the same protagonist, Alexander Seaton, at a time just before the outbreak of the English Civil War while terrible religious wars were raging on the Continent particularly in Germany where the fighting was especially brutal and savage. Although each novel is a separate stand-alone story with a mysterious death at its heart, they also chronicle Alexander’s life and psychological and emotional progress. Alexander, son of a Scottish blacksmith and an Irish mother who had eloped with Alexander’s father and had been cut off by her family, was born and brought up in the town of Banff at a time when most Scots practiced a particularly rigid form of Calvinism which held that although some might be saved from hellfire most were predestined to suffer eternally and could not be saved. Alexander himself was pretty sure of salvation and also of a good career on earth: a clever boy who did well at school and university he was destined to be a minister in the Kirk of Scotland. Even better, through his boyhood friendship with Archibald Hay of Delgatie and heir to his father’s lands, Alexander has hopes of marrying Archie’s sister Katherine. But Archie is a wild boy, not content with university studies, and he sets off for the wars in Germany to fight for the Protestant cause. News of Archie’s death is a double catastrophe for Alexander: not only has he lost his best friend but with Archie’s death Katherine’s family decide that she must marry well. But then Katherine’s parents learn that she and Alexander have become lovers and she is hastily married off to an elderly relative. She begs Alexander to elope with her but he rejects her, fearing that such disgrace would lose him his career as a minister. When Alexander is denounced by Katherine’s father in public, Alexander not only has to do public penance but his hopes of becoming a minister are dashed and all he can aspire to is a menial teaching job in a local school. In his bitterness, with only a few friends, and all too aware that he is doomed to eternal perdition, he takes to drink.

‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’
Published by Quercus,
7 May 2009.
ISBN: 978 1 84724 791 9 (pb)

In his self-disgust Alexander thinks he can fall no further. But he does. Staggering home from a drunken evening in the tavern he sees a man fall. Assuming that he is also drunk, Alexander ignores him and falls asleep in his attic bedroom room at the school where he teaches. But the man was not drunk; he was desperately ill and the town’s two bedraggled prostitutes, their toleration in the rigidly Puritan town illustrating the hypocrisy of the town’s elders of the Kirk who constitute the ruling elite, help him into the nearest building which is the school. Next morning his body is discovered, he is identified as Patrick Davidson, apprentice to the Banff apothecary, and an investigation establishes that he died of poisoning. Alexander, consumed with guilt by his failure to help Patrick, further devastated by the news that suspicion has fallen on one of his few friends, the music teacher Charles Thom, and convinced that the perpetrator could not be Charles, is drawn into the investigation. Then further complications arise: detailed maps drawn by Patrick – are they part of a Catholic plot to assist the Spanish to invade Scotland? And his friendship with Marion, the apothecary’s daughter and Charles’s possible jealousy of that relationship, not only adds to the suspicions against Charles but, with further suspicions as to witchcraft, threatens Marion. To find out the truth Alexander goes to Aberdeen and contacts old friends and begins to restore his self-esteem but will he find out there the truth about Patrick’s death? Or is the truth somewhere else?

My only caveat regarding this excellent first novel is that there are an enormous number of characters (18 in the first 24 pages alone and a lot more as the book continues), all important and some recurring in later books, and the plot is highly complex, a list of their names would have helped. Apart from this, highly recommended.


‘A Game of Sorrows’  
Published by Quercus,
2 September
2010.
ISBN: 978 1 84916 244 9(pb)

This is the second novel in the series and Alexander, having uncovered the identity of Patrick Davidson’s murderer, is now in Aberdeen. Although he will never be able to achieve his earlier dream of the ministry, he has a post in the Aberdeen College and has resumed his life with his former friends. And he is intending to marry Sarah Forbes: in the earlier book, Sarah, a maidservant, had been raped and impregnated by her brutal employer; illustrating the hypocritical misogyny of the times, she was expelled from Banff and forbidden to return under pain of death. Alexander had helped Sarah and now, attracted by her proud and independent spirit, he would like to marry her. Finally, he is entrusted by the College Principal to journey to Poland there to recruit candidates to study divinity in Aberdeen.

All this is put in jeopardy when Alexander, returning to his rooms late one night, finds a stranger there, a man who could be his double. He is Sean O’Neill, and he is Alexander’s cousin on Alexander’s mother’s side. He carries a plea for help from his and Alexander’s maternal grandmother, Maeve O’Neill. It seems that all those who are of the O’Neill blood have been placed under a curse – one by one they are going to die. Only Alexander may be immune because his existence is unknown to most people in Ireland. Alexander agrees to go with Sean to Ireland. Once there he finds that the threats to his family are all too real and he is drawn into wild conspiracies and wilder adventures, before he is able to return to Aberdeen and to Sarah.

As with all the novels, earlier and later, the historical background is impeccably researched showing the depth of the author’s knowledge of the period and the location. In this instance the background is the settlements in Ulster carried out by James the First in which the native Irish, descendants of the original inhabitants of Ireland, and the Old English, descendants of those who had been settling there for centuries and were now as Irish as the native Irish, were in conflict with the most recent English and Scottish settlers who had been installed on land confiscated from the native Irish and the Old English: a situation which still has repercussions today. However, I have to admit that I think this the least satisfactory of the four books: Maeve herself with her wild attachment to the heroic Irish myths I found unconvincing, and Alexander’s decision to abandon his bright prospects in Aberdeen is never satisfactorily explained, at least to me. On the other hand, I liked the way in which Alexander realises that not all Catholics, even Catholic priests, are manifestations of the Devil; this is part of his growing-up process and of his acceptance of toleration. And it is a good and exciting adventure, similar, I thought, to John Buchan’s historical romances. As such, recommended.


‘Crucible’
Published by Quercus,
12 April
2012.
ISBN: 978 1 84916 316 3(pb)

Alexander is now back in Aberdeen and at his old post at Marischal College. And he is now married, and has a daughter as well as a son.  And all is going well. As well as his continuing friendship with the lawyer William Cargill and his family, he has made new friends, in particular Robert Sim the scholarly and reclusive College librarian, and he is held in high regard by Dr Patrick Dun, Principal of the College. He has two other friends, John Innes and Andrew Carmichael, but his relationship with the latter is somewhat problematic. When Robert is found in the library with his throat cut, Alexander is asked by Dr Dun to make his own enquiries, in particular, as to whether there was a connection between Robert’s death and a bequest of books to the library by the scholar Gerald Duncan, a bequest about which Robert had wanted to speak to Alexander but had not had the opportunity to do so. Some of the books are histories of the Netherlands, Flanders and North Germany, currently being torn apart by the turmoil of the German religious wars; others seem to be delving into the arcane mysteries which were obsessing many scholars of the time as they attempted to unravel the workings of chemistry and physics for which we now have scientific explanations. Alexander’s investigation takes him into the world of the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, a world which many others regarded as deeply dangerous, blasphemous and bordering on witchcraft.

This is an excellent account of the way in which scholars of the time attempted to unravel the mysteries of the physical world and thus began to develop scientific knowledge. Wisely the author has not introduced too many characters so the reader can concentrate on the plot and the inter-reaction of the characters. Recommended.


‘The Devil’s Recruit’   
Published by Quercus,
8 May 2014.
ISBN: 978 1 84916 319 4 (pb)

Having solved the mystery of Robert’s death, Alexander is now established at Marischal College. His life is settled and stable and he is about to achieve his lifelong ambition to become an ordained minister of the Kirk (Church) of Scotland. But into this calm and serene way of life comes a vessel which anchors in Aberdeen harbour. It is seeking recruits for the protestant forces in the German religious wars and many young men and boys are attracted to what they see as a heroic ideal. Among those young men are two of Alexander’s students, Seoras Mackay, heir to the Highland clan chief, Donald Mackay, Lord Reay of Strathnaver, and his foster-brother Hugh (in the Gaelic Uisdean) Gunn who is bound to Seoras by ties stronger than blood. Alexander prevents Seoras and Hugh from being enlisted but almost immediately afterwards both disappear. A few days later Hugh is found, badly wounded and delirious, but there is no trace of Seoras. Then there is an amazing revelation: one of the recruiting officers is someone whom Alexander had long thought dead. At the same time there are allegations of witchcraft or demonic possession swirling around a minister of the Kirk, and some clearly strange events relating to the artist George Jamesone and two French gardeners whom he employs and Christiane, the sister of the young French Huguenot teacher Louis Rolland. And the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War come ever closer to Scotland. The search for Seoras intensifies when his father appears, accompanied by 40 fierce Highlanders, and the book ends with a final tragedy when Alexander’s life must change yet again.

Although this is the fourth book in the sequence, it is the first I read with a view to reviewing. This is one in which the backstory which formed the foundation of the earlier novels re-emerges as if to establish that we are never free of the past. That backstory can be understood without recourse to the earlier titles; nonetheless I decided to review all four together so as to gain a more complete picture. I am glad I did so; the author’s deep knowledge of the period provides an outstanding of events of the time. The plotting is highly complex but hangs together in a way that is utterly convincing. It is very much a tale of divided loyalties, clashing loyalties, love and betrayal of old friends, old loves, of treachery, revenge and tragedy. I highly recommend all four novels, but do read them in order – and it might be advisable to keep a note of the numerous characters, many of whom are real-life historical personages, while you read!
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Reviewer: Radmila May

S G MacLean was born in 1968 in Inverness and grew up in the Scottish Highlands where her parents were hoteliers. She is the niece of world-famous thriller writer Alistair MacLean. Shona  who lives in Conon Bridge with her husband, Dr James Vance, the rector at Golspie High School, and their four children, has a PhD in history from Aberdeen University, specialising in 16th and 17th- century Scottish history.

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