Crucible by S G MacLean

Once again I was transported back to 17th century Scotland with Crucible by S G Maclean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. I read the first, The Redemption of Alexander Seaton in February 2013 and now a year later I’ve been just as engrossed in Crucible. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions and it’s just full of atmosphere. I loved it.

It’s set in 1631 in Aberdeen, where Alexander is now a Master at Marischal College. On Midsummer’s eve he stumbles across the body of his friend, Robert Sim, the college librarian, a few feet from the library steps, with his throat cut, blood congealing around the wound. Dr Dun, the college principal asks Alexander to investigate the matter, to look into Robert’s private life, hoping he’ll find nothing to reflect badly on the college.

I found it absolutely compelling reading. Robert had been cataloguing a new acquisition to the library before he was killed and Alexander is convinced that Robert was troubled by what he found there, amongst the books of history, alchemy  and hermetics – the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. There are many twists and turns and another man is killed before he finally arrives at the truth.

This is the third book in the series, but although I haven’t read the second book, I don’t think that matters as I think Crucible stands well on its own. The fourth book in the series is The Devil’s Recruit – the hardback and Kindle versions are available now, whilst the paperback will be available on 14 May. Now I’ve lifted my book buying ban I think I may just have to get the Kindle version soon.

Crucible qualifies for four of the challenges I’m doing this year – the Mount TBR challenge, the Historical Fiction Challenge, My Kind of Mystery Challenge and the Read Scotland Challenge.

The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean

There are some books that have the power to transport me to another time and place and The Redemption of Alexander Seaton is one such book. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve read recently. It’s quite long and detailed but each time I put it down I wanted to get back to it as quickly as possible. It’s a fantastic book, historical crime fiction, full of atmosphere and well-drawn characters.

It’s set in 17th century Scotland, mainly in the town of Banff, where on a stormy night Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s assistant collapses in the street. The next morning he is found dead in the school house of Alexander Seaton, a failed minister, now a schoolteacher. Davidson was poisoned and when Charles Thom, one of Alexander’s few friends in the town is arrested for the murder, he sets out to prove his innocence. It’s not an easy task, and Alexander finds himself embroiled in an apparent Spanish Catholic plot to invade Scotland, and bigoted prejudices that result in a witch hunt.

As the story unfolds details of Alexander’s history are gradually revealed, his family background, friends and education and the disgrace that prevented him from becoming a minister. The religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants during the reign of Charles I is slotted into the plot seamlessly, explaining the beliefs and prejudices that struck fear into many hearts. It’s a story of murder and cruelty, but also of love and the power of good over evil. For Alexander it’s a trial that eventually sees him beginning to regain his faith in God.

I found the book totally absorbing, convinced I was back in Scotland in the 17th century, eager to find out who the murderer was and the motivation for killing Patrick Davidson. Alexander Seaton is an engaging character and I’m keen to read more about him as there are other books in the series.

The author originally wrote under her name – Shona Maclean, but now her books are published under the truncated name, S G MacLean. She explained in an interview in Shots magazine that ‘the thinking was that my name was too soft and feminine and men wouldn’t buy my books.’ She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen. Her Alexander Seaton books are:

1. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton (2008)
2. A Game of Sorrows (2010)
3. Crucible of Secrets (2011)
4. The Devil’s Recruit (2013)

Note: The cover shown above is from the 2009 paperback edition published by Quercus, which I borrowed from my local library.