If Jean Auel and Arthur Conan Doyle had collaborated, the result might have been Talus, the bard detective at the center of Graham Edwards’ novel, Talus and the Frozen King. Set in northern Europe during the Neolithic period, Talus and his companion Watson, umm, I mean Bran, stumble across an island village mourning the sudden death of their king. It takes only a few pages for Talus to throw everything into chaos with his Quincy-like revelation (yes, I’m dating myself with that reference) that, “This king was murdered.” Cue a parade of suspects, red herrings, sharply detailed observations, an often-befuddled companion, and the eventual unmasking of a diabolical plot. There’s even, perhaps, a Moriarty.
This has to be the earliest set historical mystery I have ever read. I’m not sure one can get much earlier (Lucy and the Lost Australopithecus afarensis anyone?), and this setting was both boon and bane to the reading experience, though mostly boon. The uniqueness of the setting was one of the obvious pluses, as I don’t often see this time period portrayed, though ironically, I’ve read two others in the past month or two. Although Edwards doesn’t give us the full immersive treatment, as say Kim Stanley Robinson does in Shaman, he does a nice job of giving us a feel for this removed world, both in terms of physical scene setting and — though sometimes less successfully — the era’s mindset. Descriptions of the homes in Creyak, for instance, are vividly concrete and certainly have a feel of authority (not being well-versed in Neolithic construction methods, I can’t say if they are actually authoritatively accurate). Meanwhile, cultural/intellectual attributes of the time, such as a belief in a spirit world or their view toward fire, an event we so take for granted, also go a long ways toward creating a sense of the foreign.
Where the setting sometimes causes issues is when one can feel Edwards trying a bit too hard at painting the picture of Talus as the most ancient ancestor of all ensuing detectives, as when he struggles with what to call an observation — “Here, this was the — he waved his hands as if trying to tease something out of the air — clue.” Or when he makes a visual representation of Creyak and tells his audience, “I call it a map.” Luckily, these moments of strained clumsiness, and a few instances when some words feel out of time, are relatively few. And if he chooses a few solid points upon which to make his worldbuilding stand, it is relatively limited, and I’m not even sure all of it holds up in terms of timelines, though I could easily be wrong about that (mentions of pyramids, both Egyptian and South American).
The plot is the relatively standard country house fare: an isolated and small setting, a limited number of suspects, a process of deduction that goes relentlessly forward but backslides now and then or branches off in several directions. I wouldn’t call the mystery particularly compelling, nor the revelations at the end particularly surprising save one, but Edwards is more than fair with the reader and if attentive (or jaded) readers might see most of it coming, the trip is enjoyable enough. My one somewhat iffy reaction was to the Big Bad who comes in toward the end, which felt a bit forced. But we’ll see where that goes (I’m assuming there’s going to be a sequel; it has that feel though this book certainly ends resolved enough to stand on its own).
Talus, with his Holmes-like attributes, is a familiar character: preternaturally observant, highly rational, super deductive, a lover of puzzles, often condescending (though not, it seems, purposely or cruelly so), a sharp taskmaster and teacher, and quite at sea when it comes to the emotional side of human equations. The twist, and it’s a good one, is that this detective is also a bard, and so is quite free with his words, which are less poetic/lyrical than one might expect, but often are layered in metaphor/allegory. Edwards makes fine use of the story within a story concept, as Talus offers up several tales, none of them of any great length, but all of them having undercurrents of truth that linger long after the telling. As a type, he is a well written creation; as a character, I can’t say I ever warmed to him or felt much engaged by him. He didn’t feel quite fully finished to me, or quite fully present, even when we were in his head.
Bran, his Watson, is also the usual type — smart but not as smart (and so presented, often in his own mind, as somewhat dim, until the reader realizes that isn’t at all the case), a more physical presence (Watson brings his pistol, Bran his hand-axe) as well as a more emotional one. Watson’s skill was doctoring; Bran’s is fishing and boats. And of course, like Watson, he is the vehicle by which the reader can be led through the mystery’s solutions, as Talus explains things to him. As he did by giving Talus the role of bard, Edwards both broadens and deepens Bran’s character by giving him a tragic past whereby he is haunted by the death of his wife. Exactly how that happened is one of the smaller sidelight questions that gets revealed along with the major mystery. That death, in fact, is what drove Bran to join Talus’ quest to head north, and also what is making him reconsider that quest at the start of the novel (though the reader has little doubt about what his decision will turn out to be). As with the detective inventing, sometimes one feels Edwards straining a bit too much to use that past, but that feeling is only a minor detraction. And I did like how he paints the relationship between Talus and Bran, from Bran’s side at least, as a sometimes prickly one.
Talus and the Frozen King felt a bit over-long. Coming in at a bit over 300 pages, it seemed 250—275 would have been sufficient for plot purposes. Some of that over-long feel also comes from narrative choices, as several times it felt as if Talus was explaining a bit too much too long. But despite that, and despite a few of the other issues, I mostly enjoyed Talus and the Frozen King, gaining what I’d call a moderate sense of pleasure from it, mostly from its relatively fresh setting. Enough pleasure at least so that I’d be interested in picking up the second, if Edwards does decide to keep Talus’ story going, as seems the intent.