Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

I have some reservations about this novel, but I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequel when it is published. I like historical fiction, and I like alternative history (mostly) as well.  But I’m more comfortable when I can distinguish the two.

Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

‘Among [Constantinople]’s defenders was a man cloaked in shadow.  He is mentioned in accounts of the siege, but only in a few lines here and there.

Some writers described him as German, but in fact he was a Scot, and his name was John Grant.’

I picked this novel up for two reasons.  First, it featured John Grant, an engineer who played a key role in the fall of Constantinople in 1453 but about whom little is known.  Secondly, I’m a huge fan of Neil Oliver and wanted to see whether his fiction is as good as his non-fiction.

The story shifts between Scotland and Constantinople, between a number of characters, including John Grant, Prince Constantine and a mysterious woman known as Lena.  Mr Oliver weaves a complex story (yes, I was hearing him narrate it as I read) and I enjoyed most of it.  But is it historical fiction, or alternative history?  I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone who has yet to read it.  I will say, though, that I found it easier to read past a certain point if I regarded the novel as presenting an alternative history.  Otherwise, the identity of one particular character would have had me closing the book and throwing it at the wall.

I liked the depiction of John Grant, and I found Badr Khassan intriguing.  Under Badr Khassan’s guidance, John Grant grows from a boy with a mysterious past, surrounded by secrets, into an effective mercenary.  John Grant has unusual abilities, and a sense of honour. His life becomes a quest to keep a death-bed promise, and he meets some interesting people along the way.

As the action moved to Constantinople, to the siege, I found myself less concerned about historical accuracy and more interested in how this particular story was going to end.  I read that a sequel is planned for release later this year.  Yes, I’ll be looking to read it.  I want to know how John Grant’s story will continue.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith