Thank you to Orbit Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Release date: November 12th, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Published in 2019, Four Word Title
I know the truth of men’s hearts, and what I know is that they are right, every single one of them. They live within the power of their own rightness, and anyone who disagrees with them can only be wrong, and being wrong, they are therefore less. That is what I know, and it terrifies me.
I’m convinced: it’s literally impossible for Claire North to write a bad book. I think she’s just genuinely incapable of anything less than excellence. When she writes a sentence, it just comes out good. Every single time. Of this I am certain. Alternatively, there’s the much more mundane and likely scenario: she’s very, very good at proofing, has a wonderful editor and team behind her, and has honed her craft over many years and novels. However her frankly gorgeous writing originates, the result is the same: yet another brilliant novel being gifted to the world.
The plot is a fascinating mix of intrigue, social issues, and politics – all set on top of a deadly game of tag. The titular William Abbey has been cursed with the shadow of young boy who was burned to death by a mob as Abbey looked on. The shadow follows him at a shuffle… slow, but implacable. When the shadow reaches him, it uses him as a conduit to jump to the person he loves most and kill them. And then… it begins its journey again. Abbey must constantly be on the move in order to stay ahead of the shadow and protect the few friends he has remaining.
As the shadow approaches, Abbey gains a particular ability: to see into the hearts and minds of those around him. To discern and understand the truths by which they live. To understand the essence of what motivates them, their heart’s desire, their deepest and most closely-held secrets. The lines between Abbey and those around him blur until he becomes more of a mirror than a man. Their truths become his, and he cannot shut them out. The closer the shadow is to him, the stronger his compulsion towards truth becomes until he’s literally unable to cease speaking the truths of those around him. This is what ultimately lands him in trouble: truth-speakers are highly valued by the international espionage community, and he soon finds himself under the control of a group called The Nineteen and in the employ of the British Crown.
They interviewed me for two days before I began to dream my neighbours’ dreams again. Waking in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that this would be a good time to rock madly on the end of my bed. To howl. To march through the London streets looking for a fight. To get immensely drunk, find a brothel, visit old friends, write offensive letters to ancient, half-forgotten adversaries. Smash glass. Pray. Langa comes. He comes. He comes. I just lay there, wide awake, and understood that I was a prisoner in a gilded cage, and that my life would be spent running, and violating the hearts of men, and I did nothing until the morning came.
With their hands and eyes guiding his actions, what ensues is a tale of treachery, betrayal, and self-reflection. Abbey is forced to face that he, too, is part of the machine that killed that boy at the Cape. He, too, is perpetuating this with every action he performs for the crown. As he goes on to meet other truth-speakers and sees the truth of their stories and backgrounds, he’s forced to reevaluate his choices. He’s duplicitous, sly, and does his best to support the things he believes in despite his circumstances. He becomes involved with libertine groups, vying for voice and representation. He falls in love with a woman who cannot love him in return. He looks into others and sees himself through their eyes.
As Abbey searches for a cure, a way to stop this shadow, his road in fact takes him back to the place he was originally cursed. On the Cape, when he finally tracks down the daughter of the woman who cursed him, she makes it clear that his curse is exactly what he deserved and no less. He is selfish in his desire to be free and has learned nothing. By removing the shadow, all he is seeking to do is that for which he and all the white colonizers are guilty of: assuming that the native population of Africa exists solely to serve him. “You just know black woman put shadow on you, black boy follow you, black woman forgive you. We – in your story. You do not know our story. You do not hear our story of when white men came and killed my brother. You do not see. Want everything to serve you. I will not. I will not serve you,” she says, as she send Abbey along his way.
North’s prose weaves imagery and thoughts with seemingly-effortless grace and precision. Each sentence connects to the sentence before and after it. Paragraphs are merely one piece of the whole. It is almost impossible to pick apart a chapter; every line of this book is wholly integrated into the ones around it. I adore this style of writing, and I find that it helps me feel fully submerged within the atmosphere and story. North often utilizes a stream-of-consciousness style narrative to describe the overwhelming deluge of thoughts and emotion Abbey experiences. This is supremely effective, and brings forward the unique cadence of each person Abbey interacts with. It additionally serves to set these portions away from the standard narration without breaking flow or causing interruption. Where some authors might rely on formatting or italics, North uses style. In The Pursuit of William Abbey, North further pushes the mold by reordering events outside their chronological progression and presenting us with a highly unreliable narrator. This is a true piece of ergodic literature, requiring attention and effort on the part of the reader to untangle the story as it is presented.
The one aspect of this narrative that didn’t work as well for me was the pacing. Although I did enjoy the social commentary present within it and thoroughly enjoyed each page of writing, I found that the first half of the book seemed to flow a bit more slowly than I might have hoped. It’s not until the 50% mark that the underlying plot comes to the forefront. Prior to that, it feels like a series of small vignettes; although they are lovely to read and consume, I still felt that I was missing the meat of the book. Fortunately, after that juncture, the book immediately sped up and brought us back to the overarching narrative with a pleasant swiftness and efficiency that made the second half of the book a quick and lively read. Once the narrative hit its stride, I was fully engaged and eager to see how things would pan out.
North dives deep into the consequences of racism and colonialism. If it does not, perhaps, have the immediacy and brutality found in Queen of the Conquered, it nevertheless plays a pivotal role in the book. It doesn’t fully permeate, but it doesn’t shy away from addressing the consequences of the British empire. Through the lens of Abbey’s own experiences, we witness the double standards the brown-skinned people of Africa are held to. Justice is skewed, arbitrary, and horrifically racist. In fact, this is in large part the origin of his shadow: when a young black boy, Langa, was discovered kissing the daughter of a wealthy white man, the town immediately cried scandal and dragged him to his death.
Nor was the condition of the Bantu peoples within Natal or the neighbouring Boer states slavery, for lo – if a white man killed a black man, beat a black child to death, assaulted a black woman or burnt their property, they would duly be taken before the court of law. There, guarded by white men, they would be judged by their white peers, their plea considered by a white judge, and there might even upon some occasion be a fine passed down, if the case was considered severe. If matters got that far. Of course, should a black man kill a white man, it was unlikely that the wandering lawmen of the wild grasslands would have anything to say on the matter. The white men would come with rifle and rope, and before all his family they would most likely torture that same black man to death, leaving his mutilated body for crows. And if, incensed by this, his black neighbours turned against the white and drove the farmers from the land, impaling hand and head with spears hoarded in the secret places of the kraal, those bruised survivors of Boer or English stock would flee to Pretoria, Durban, Kimberley or the Cape and report on the feared uprising of the natives, and there would come marching with drum and Maxim gun all the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men, and the vultures would flock in from mountain and far-off withered perch to feast royally on a spread of flesh.
The Pursuit of William Abbey is a fundamentally human book. It takes a slice of history and examines it through a lens of personal truths: the politicians who think themselves the epitome of righteousness, the priests who come closer to god even as they dehumanize anyone with different skin tones. These appear as true to these people, even if they are not perhaps objectively so. This is a study in morality and in the flawed ways we see ourselves. I highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys beautifully written, thoughtful novels focused on morality, history, and humanity. This is a slow, winding road of a book – some patience and willingness to untangle a twisted narrative will be needed. This is not a quick, easy weekend read… but it’s one that is gorgeous and rewarding. Dense, but delightful.
Recommended for fans of:
- Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Let me know in the comments below!