Andrei Baltakmens’ The Raven’s Seal is an amazing work of historical mystery set in fictional city of Airenchester, England in 1776. Baltakmens has an incredible gift for writing in period English without bogging it down with either unnecessary Dickensian bluster or anachronisms. Even if the plot weren’t great (which it is), it would be a treat to read this book just for the language Baltakmens uses.
We meet out protagonist, Thaddeus Grainger, just as he is about to make his exit from a society dance and head for his favorite pub. At this point in the novel, Grainger is not a very nice person. He is not quite as awful as the other people in his social circle, but he’s still a bit of a rake and he certainly doesn’t take things as seriously as he should. Shortly after the book opens, Grainger challenges another gentleman (not in the literal sense of the word) to a duel over Cassandra Redruth, a poor girl who was pawed while trying to look for her brother in the pub where Grainger and Massingham were (separately) whiling away an evening. The duel doesn’t go well for Grainger, though he isn’t fatally wounded. Massingham goes off to celebrate. The next thing anyone knows, Grainger is arrested for Massingham’s murder.
Nothing goes Grainger’s way, as witnesses come forward to condemn him. He barely escapes the noose and is sentenced to Bellstrom Prison, a “gaol [that] provided a college for villainy, wherein its doctors in crime graduated to that most thorough and relentless examiner, the noose” (202*) You’d expect such a naive and unworldly man as Grainger to shortly get the dog snot beaten out of him, but he manages to make some allies among the older prisoners who tutor him in how to get along. Grainger, along with his friend William Quillby and Cassie Redruth, strive to gather evidence showing the Grainger was framed. As time passes, it becomes clear that Grainger’s imprisonment is but a small part of a colossal conspiracy that takes in pretty much all crime and fraud in and around Airenchester. All signs point back to a mysterious figure known by his sign, a raven’s foot in a seal of black wax, and Bellstrom Prison.
Baltakmens did mountains of research about this period in England’s history, especially regarding the penal system of the time. But he has a remarkably light touch with exposition. You get a clear sense of the wretched conditions of the prisoners who could not afford the prison warden’s “garnish”–fees for better rooms, food, etc. You also get a close look at the sharp divide between the “respectable” wealthy and the poor. If you have money, it seems like you can get away with just about anything. But if you’re poor or don’t play by the rules set up by the wealthy, well, you’re in for a world of injustice.
I very much look forward to more from Baltakmens. This is easily my favorite book of the year.
* Quote is from the 2012 kindle edition, published by Top Five Books, LLC.