Stories are all that we have, Lethriel. They are all that we are. (p. 106)
Fully one-third of the way into Graham Edwards's new historical mystery, the bard Talus reveals this view of humanity to a woman caught up in the murder Talus finds himself investigating. With the same line, the author lays bare his plan for the book (and presumably the series to follow): stories within stories within stories, all of which reveal hidden truths (even when the stories themselves are legends or outright lies); truths about individuals, about society, about humanity.
We are introduced in the very first scene to the wandering bard Talus and his traveling companion Bran. The two have a tangled history and mysteries of their own: how did Bran's late wife Keyli die? What set Talus on the search for the land where the northlights touch the earth? How did Talus and Bran, an unlikely pair in the tradition of Holmes and Watson but also Abbott and Costello, come to travel together? Hints, and eventually answers, are sprinkled throughout the book but are not the main mystery.
That mystery is set against political intrigues on the island nation of Creyak: the king has been discovered frozen to death. Each of his six sons, along with the island shaman and several others, are likely suspects. Every character has a story to tell: some are eager to share, some are reticent; some are angry and some defensive. And though at first no-one trusts the outsiders who have wandered into their midst, Talus eventually hears them all out in the course of investigating this unusual death. Edwards employs the McGuffin / multiple suspects / red herring tropes of the cozy mystery sufficiently well to keep the action moving forward, although "cozy" might not be the best descriptor for a story that rushes back and forth around a frozen northern Scottish island in the Neolithic period. Characters' stories (the word "alibi" is never used, perhaps because it likely didn't exist in the Neolithic) contradict each other, important details are left unspoken.
Talus and Bran have to fit it together, and Edwards graciously allows the reader in on that thought process. This is ultimately a fair-play mystery in which the clues are there for the reader as well as for the detective, unlike in so many Holmes tales where the reader only learns what the clues were when Holmes explains how brilliant he is.
It isn't a stretch to compare Talus to Holmes: both men are tall (although Talus is also bald); both have a less detail-oriented, more action-minded sidekick to whom they can explain their theories (Watson had a bum leg; Bran has a burned and almost useless hand); both are extremely socially awkward and don't think about niceties before they speak their minds, sometimes appearing clueless about what is and is not acceptable behavior. I am sure these shared traits were intentional on Edwards's part. They make Talus instantly relatable to Holmes fans, a sort of shorthand. We recognize the type of detective we're seeing in action, although "detective" is another word that is never used in the novel. Talus promises he will stay until he has uncovered the truth of the king's death; he never promises to "solve the case," never announces that he is "investigating" anything. He just asks questions in search of someone bold enough to kill a king and face the wrath of their ancestors in the afterdream.
Readers expecting a fantasy novel based on their previous experience with Edwards's work may be disappointed. This is an historical mystery, and the only nod to the supernatural is in the ancestor-ghost-based belief system of the time. The shaman has visions and fits, the burial cairn includes a door to the afterdream, there are totems and henges scattered around the island, and we see the Northern Lights at several key moments . . . but none of it is fantasy, it's all just a part of the society. There is the implication, however small, that the supernatural might be real, especially in the actions of one particular character and in the reason for Talus and Bran's quest to find the place where northlights touch earth. I would not be surprised to see Edwards bring more clearly supernatural elements into later books in the series, but this first novel is firmly rooted in the physical world and the murderer's motivation is an entirely human one.
Talus not only listens to the stories he is told, he is called upon to tell stories. While we don't ever get to hear Talus tell a tale all the way through (mid-story the focus usually shifts to what Bran is doing while Talus is orating), the portions of the tales we do get to hear always have some implication or meaning for the plot. Talus notices things others don’t, and his stories are his way of thinking through the facts he's absorbing. These legends weave into the fabric of the investigation and give the reader an extra level of insight into the world in which these characters exist.
Talus and the Frozen King is ultimately a novel about stories, just as Talus tells Lethriel—the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world, to justify our own or someone else's actions, to hold onto our own history. And as in the real world, no-one's story stands alone: we are all connected, even if those connections are sometimes not as clear as they could be.
Anthony R. Cardno's reviews have also appeared in Icarus and Chelsea Station. His short fiction can be found upcoming in Beyond the Sun (Fairwood Press) and Oomph (Crossed Genres). He interviews creative types at www.anthonycardno.com and can be found on Twitter as @talekyn.