This is the sequel to The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, which was shortlisted for the 2009 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. Like its predecessor, it certainly held this reader in thrall from first to last. I would give Shona McLean full marks, not only for her supreme skill as a storyteller, but for her erudition. Her characters spring fully alive from the page, because they are so completely people of their time, suffering from the appalling prejudices of their day. Alexander Seaton is a good man, courageous and moral, but he is so hidebound by his religious principles that he makes appalling mistakes.
The tale, set at the end of the first quarter of the 17th century, opens in Aberdeen, where Seaton is a teacher at a Presbyterian college. His great friends in Aberdeen are William Cargill and his wife, who have taken in Sarah Forbes, a victim of religious prejudice, who has been banished from Banff because she has an illegitimate son, the child of rape.
Seaton has been in love with Sarah for some time, but has been reluctant to propose to her because of his own prejudices. But as he is about to be sent to Germany on a mission to seek out new teachers for the college, he decides that he will ask her to marry him before he goes. He has not yet done so when he is accused of being involved in a drunken brawl in the town centre. He indignantly denies this, but then meets the real perpetrator, who he is astonished to discover is his double.
Seaton’s mother had fled Ireland before Seaton was born with his English father, and she never spoke about her family. Seaton’s new acquaintance, Sean Fitzgarrett, explains that he is Seaton’s cousin, and has come to Scotland because the family, who are related to the Irish nobility, need Seaton’s help as they have been cursed by a bard at the wedding of Sean’s sister Deirdre to one of the English merchants now settled in Ulster.
So compelling is Sean’s personality that Seaton eventually agrees to desert his job, his potential wife, and all his friends in Aberdeen, and go to Ireland on what he is sure is a fool’s errand. This is only the beginning of what is an enthralling story.
On arrival, Ulster lives up to all Seaton’s worst nightmares. His family, led by his appalling grandmother, Maeve, are as bad as he could possibly imagine. Of course, they are staunch Catholics, and Seaton regards them as idolators. Sean’s strange sister, Deirdre, has apparently married the Englishman purely to spite her grandmother. Seaton is plunged into a turmoil of warring Irish, Scots/English settlers whose loyalty is to King James, and worst of all to him the machinations of the Catholic church.
He is plunged into a series of terrifying adventures following the murder of Sean, for whom in spite of all he has come to have a deep affection. The plot is cunningly woven, and presents a dark picture of Ulster at one of its most turbulent periods, which sowed the seeds for all the troubles which were to come in the succeeding centuries.
A truly fine piece of writing, and not to be missed.