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Review by: Mark Palm
Let me bite the bullet and say it; I don’t think that Frankenstein is a great book. However there is no doubting its importance or its cultural relevance. At the heart of the book lies an endlessly fascinating question; was Frankenstein’s error in creating life, or in failing to take responsibility for the life he created? A similar dilemma can be found in Will Starling, a terrific new novel by Ian Weir.
Some novels take some time to find their rhythm, but I knew that this book was good from the first page. Mr. Wier grabs you by the lapels, with great style and a distinct and original prose. The first-person narration, by one Will Starling, is full of charm and unflagging energy, and I could have read this novel for that alone and been satisfied. There is however, a whole lot more to this novel than that.
The plot of this tale is rollicking yet layered, so I am loathe to tell you much more, but after a botched grave-robbery, and some mob justice, a grieving prostitute is accused of murder, and Will Starling, with one foot in the street and one foot in the world of science and medicine, begins to see a conspiracy of diabolical cleverness that may involve Atherton, and may also just ensnare anyone who gets caught up in it.
Like the medical science of the time, the world portrayed by Mr. Weir is bloody and short. This is an historical novel that is full of sharp detail, but it’s not about hoop skirts and fox hunts. There is a loaf of anger in this story and most of it is righteous and well-deserved. Most of the characters in Will Starling have the deck stacked against them, but they push on, with a perseverance and an elan that makes a grim book a pleasure to read. Not to say that things are all sunshine and roses; there is plenty of misery to go around. Unrequited love, injustice, poverty, betrayal, arrogance, hubris, it’s all here in spades.
The bravery of common people, and the dignity of the downtrodden, and Mr. Weir’s care for these characters makes it all work. Will, the narrator is the star, but all of the rest of the characters, not matter how small, are brought to life. Meg Nancarrow will haunt me for years. She’s the kind of character that could carry her own book with ease.
When the story starts to race towards the end I got the feeling that I often get with the best of books; that the outcome is both surprising and inevitable, and that as much as I wanted to find out what happened, I dreaded the book coming to end. The question Ms. Shelley asked so many years ago is still relevant, and in Will Starling Mr. Weir shows that the answer may never be known; but posing that question, and doing it with daring and originality, is important enough.