Master of Shadows

Written by Neil Oliver
Review by Marina Maxwell

This sweeping epic set in the mid-15th century has many of the ingredients of the traditional historical novel à la Sir Walter Scott: adventure, battles, romance, conspiracies and secrets. Young John Grant is rescued from malevolent Scots Borderers by Bahr Khassan, a stranger from the East and friend of John’s late father, Patrick. John travels with Bahr across Europe, honing his skills as a mercenary in the battles between Christians and Muslims.

Lena is a mysterious warrior woman who lives alone in the Spanish woods. When she becomes a target of those same Scotsmen, she is in turn rescued by John Grant. There are big surprises in store when we learn about her past and discover who she really is.

Constantine, heir to the Byzantine emperor, is crippled after catching young Yaminah when she falls from the gallery of St Sophia. Confined to his rooms, he spends his days creating shadow puppet plays about Constantinople’s turbulent history.

This is Neil Oliver’s first foray into fiction, and he brings with it all his incomparable enthusiasm, for which he is already acclaimed through his television documentaries and non-fiction. His often lyrical narrative does take getting used to, as it shifts sideways or bends between place and time, but perhaps the characters’ journeys are intended to be like the convolutions of a Celtic knot or triskelion spiralling around a common destiny at the spectacular fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

Oliver has included degrees of mysticism and myth and taken historical liberties that will no doubt upset some purists, but they hardly matter in this extraordinary and absorbing ride. It is a highly ingenious blockbuster that is sure to find its way to the top of many a reading list. There’s also an audio version narrated by the author himself to further enhance the spine-tingling and swoon factors!