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Dark Asylum review and Q&A

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Image result for dark asylum e s thompson

I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.

How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.

Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.

Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.

It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.

This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…

* * * *

Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?

In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places.  The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too.  But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s.  Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist. 


Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.

Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest.  I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be.  Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do.  As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop.  Did I succeed?  I’ll let others be the judge

I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?

I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m  uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.

You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?

No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise.  What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic.  I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character.  But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.

Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)

Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life.  Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel.  She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem.  Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.

Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era

I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore.  As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine.  So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail.  However,  I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s.  Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel.  London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change.  I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists.  As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.

A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.

Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite.  At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.

* * * *

Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.

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Written by SJAT

March 13, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Plague Road

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plagueroad

I used to sit, cocooned in my own little Roman world, reading Roman books and not straying beyond that. In fairness, there’s so much good Roman fiction out there you can actually do that. But then new names, books and series pop up here and there and make me leave my comfort zone. Recently I’ve been rather getting into my historical mysteries, everything from Roman to cold war and the whole gamut of eras in between. I was surprised at how immersive I found Robin Blake’s mysteries set in 1740s Preston. In fact, I loved them so much that when the publishers offered me a new title set in the 1660s I simply had to say yes. I’m very glad that I did.

I’d not previously been aware of L.C. Tyler and assumed that he was a new writer. Boy was I wrong. Turns out this is the third in a series, and the author has many other mysteries out besides. In fact, he’s the chair of the Crime Writers Association, which gives you some idea of his pedigree.

Excited at the prospect, I opened the cover and began. I almost put it down straight away. The book is written in first person, present tense, a tense that I find hard work and has put me off numerous novels in the past. I persevered. It took only a page and I got over it. I still don’t like that tense in books, but Tyler’s easy style completely negates any issues I ever have with it.

Then I hit the second of my two snags. The protagonist is a lawyer in plague-struck London, 1665. He is propositioned by a powerful politician and drawn into a mission to retrieve a stolen document. At first the hook for the character seemed to me rather spurious. Why a lawyer would get himself involved in such things seemed unlikely. But once again, I was taking things at face value. You see, this is, as I said, the third volume in a series, and so I have clearly missed out on much character development (something I will be going back to remedy, by the way, as soon as I have time.) And as I ignored my problem with the hook (the maguffin if you will), and read on, the reasons gradually became clear as I came to understand the history of the various people involved.

So that’s my intro. Two reasons I should have stopped reading by my usual standards. And yet I didn’t. Why? Well, for four reasons, I think.

Firstly, there’s Tyler’s prose. It is a mark of just how good he is that I not only overcame my almost pathological dislike of that writing tense and even came to enjoy it! That’s a first. The style is easy while being elegant, direct and pacy without undue brevity, descriptive without being cumbersome. This is clearly the skill of an author who has long since honed his craft.

Secondly, there’s the setting. I know a little about the restoration period, the plague and the great fire, but not a great deal, so exploring this world through the eyes of a clearly very knowledgeable man was new and fascinating.

Thirdly, there’s the plot. In some ways this is a murder mystery, but it is so much more. It includes political shenanigans with far-reaching, country-threatening effects. It reminds me a little of ‘The Four Musketeers’, or possibly a restoration ‘Where Eagles Dare’. Complex and elegant.

But for me very much the biggest win is the protagonist. He has a dry wit in very much the manner that I particularly enjoy. There are moments when John Grey is talking that he is so satisfyingly, hilariously cutting that even Edmund Blackadder would be cursing and wishing he’d thought of saying that. He has shot up the list to become one of my very favourite characters. There are many great lines in the books, but here’s a nice example:

“There are good lies and bad lies. We told some good lies to rescue you. This will be a good lie too. And it will be a very small one. Not big enough to go to Hell for. Just big enough to go to Salisbury.”

I wont immediately say ‘go and buy this book’ despite the fact that it’s published on the 6th. And I’m reviewing it early for a very good reason. Because what I am saying is that this book makes it worth reading the first two volumes in the series, and now you’ve got chance to get them and read them before this one comes out.

John Grey is a new hero of mine. He will be for you too. Check out the series and do it soon.

A Year Of Ravens

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A Year of Ravens Cover

Coming 17th November:

Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Briton . . . and these are their stories.

A calculating queen foresees the fires of rebellion in a king’s death.

A neglected slave girl seizes her own courage as Boudica calls for war.

An idealistic tribune finds manhood in a brutal baptism of blood and slaughter.

A death-haunted Druid challenges the gods themselves to ensure victory for his people.

A conflicted young warrior finds himself torn between loyalties to tribe and to Rome.

An old champion struggles for everlasting glory in the final battle against the legions.

A pair of fiery princesses fight to salvage the pieces of their mother’s dream as the ravens circle.

A novel in seven parts, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Britons who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?

* * * *

This is one great story told in seven separate tales by some of the best writers in the business. I’ve read all the tales myself and you’re in for a treat.

The book is now up for pre-order. You can get is at:

Amazon.com here, Amazon uk here, iTunes here, Barnes & Noble here, and Kobo here

Just over a month to go, folks.

🙂

Somnambulist

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This review has been a long time coming. I was always intrigued with the premise and I picked up the paperback a couple of years ago, intending to read it, but scheduled reviews and my own writing got in the way. Last year, when I had a brief lull, I tried to find time again, but again events conspired to stop me. I bought the audio book, thinking it might allow me to circumvent my own workload, but I soon discovered that I simply don’t have the time for audio books, between work and kids. In the end, I bought the kindle version (so yes, I now have three copies of the Somnambulist!) and recently I found enough of a gap in things to actually read it.

Good job I did.

I’m not particularly au fait with the Victorian era. I’ve seen a few movies, of course, read some Conan Doyle, D.E. Meredith, Stockwin, Cornwell, Collard and so on, but it’s mostly been centred around military or espionage plots. I used to love the Edgar Allen Poe type genre, but it seems that for the last decade or two no one has been able to write gothic Victoriana without throwing in vampires, which has started to bore me to death . Not so, this book. The Somnambulist has a much more real feel to it, is solidly grounded in the real world, does not run to monsters and fantasy.

The plot is nicely involved and with a number of surprises and twists, as young Phoebe Turner, through a series of unpleasant circumstances, finds herself the companion of a lady in an eerie gothic country house. The contrast, incidentally, between her early days in squalid London and this country residence, is very nicely put over. In her new life, Phoebe starts to unearth clues as to the gaps in her own past. Quite simply there is far too much in the book to try and put over here, and spoilers for the Somnambulist would be all too easy to slip in. Suffice it to say, the book is a rather twisted journey of realisation and discovery filled with rich characters and chilling moments, written against a vivid background.

If I were to label two down sides for me, they would be the level of involvement of the book – which at times became perhaps over-complex, forcing me to try and mentally place all the strands as I read – and the pace. I realise that the latter is a natural symptom of the milieu in which Fox is writing, so that’s not a comment on her ability or style, but more on Victorian history and why I don’t often read it. The more Fox has tried to put over the most authentic feel of character and descriptive for the era she can, the more the plot slowed by necessity, which is my main problem with 18th/19th century literature (I cannot stand Thomas Hardy, am excruciatingly bored by Austen and the Brontes, and just about tolerate Dickens.)

That being said, please don’t be put off by this. The characters are extremely realistic, the locations fascinating, the narrative atmospheric almost to the point of smog leaking from the pages, and the twisted plot and its excellent conclusion very well planned and well written. As a debut it was a heady and fascinating book to read, and it has achieved what is probably the most important goal of any debut author – it has made me put Fox’s second book, Elijah’s Mermaid, on my ‘must read’ list.

Written by SJAT

July 30, 2015 at 10:29 am