I’m grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Titan Books
Published – Out Now
Price - £7.99
Europe.1963. And the true Cold War is fought on the borders of this world, at the edges of the light.
When the assassination of a traitor trading with the enemy goes terribly wrong. British Intelligence agent Christopher Winter must flee London. In a tense alliance with a lethal, mysterious woman named Karina Lazarova, he’s caught in a quest for hidden knowledge from centuries before, an occult secret written in the language of fire. A secret that will give supremacy to the nation that possesses it.
Racing against the Russians, the chase takes them from the demon-haunted Hungarian border to treasure-laden tunnels beneath Berlin, from an impossible house in Vienna to a bomb-blasted ruin in Bavaria where something unholy waits, born of the power of white fire and black glass…
It’s a world of treachery, blood and magic. A world at war in the dark
Spies in media very much like fantasy characters can come in all sorts. You can jump from the grand adventures of 007 to the insanity of Austin Powers. In contrast to the movies John Le Carre’s books pointed out that it’s less driving around in the flash car and more skulking in shadows and being part of a large government machine that was grubby, amoral and often merciless. Nick Setchfield in his impressive debut asks the question what would happen if we added in magic and demons?
The story is set in 1963 when the world was only just getting used to seeing satellites launched into space; the US and the USSR were only just recovering from the being on the cusp of nuclear war and the Berlin Wall was a reminder of the power of the state. British assassin Christopher Winter’s “simple” mission to eliminate a communist spy goes out of control and leads to the spiralling deaths of colleagues and loved ones. He glimpses something inhuman within his target and starts to spot figures that can both appear to be those he knows and then someone completely different. Fleeing Britain to track down those he believes responsible he finds that in the higher world of those in charge of espionage there is a lot more acceptance that ‘magecraft’ is not just real but very useful to the fighting for dominance of the planet.
It’s a fascinating world and Winter discovers some of the first English intelligence agencies were influenced by the ciphers of the mysterious Doctor John Dee who protected the Queen but also wanted to study demons and angels (which is true!). Setchfield really captures the sense of a 1960’s spy world – bureaucrats moving pieces from afar; clandestine meetings in shabby places and essentially a whole messy and often deadly battle being fought in alleys, dusty rooms and tunnels. It’s not that surprising that the darker, magical powers have taken an interest in the humans showing up in their own places. Winter who is a focused, practical and calculating man much more used to planning ways to kill and flee suddenly finds himself questioning himself and his role in these events as he pursues and himself chased by those who see a firm role for him in their games. It’s tense, everyone is hiding something, and all lives are expendable – making it feel a tense and claustrophobic read.
It’s skilful that the spy side can so quickly turn into something much more darker and fantastical. There are aspects of supernatural horror that are less big flashy scenes of spells and far more the subversive creeping horror. Is the corpse moving? What is the bannister made of? Its that feeling that something that isn’t quite right that strongly reminded me of the supernatural written by John Connolly and Mike Carey – the quiet and tense kind that I always find the scarier to read as we find the world just isn’t what we think it is.
My only niggle is that it could have done with a few more female characters. The stand-out is Karina who you never really know what she will do next but be assured it will be done with style and competence. The three women we do meet all have unique and different roles but at times it felt a little too much a re-enactment of thrillers written of the time by men and I’m not sure how accurate that was. Setchfield shows he can write great characters and Karina proves an even match for Winter and possibly the more accomplished spy too and none of the women are simply foils for the main lead, but I’d like to see much more.
It’s a very impressive debut novel and while it wraps the main plot up there is room for more episodes int his mysterious world of spies. If you’re looking for a great supernatural thriller that may even give you chills in this heat, then I’d strongly recommend this trip to the 60’s!