December 20, 2011

Rabid Reads: "Sparrowhawk" by Paul Finch

Sparrowhawk
by Paul Finch
published by Brentwood Press (2011)
originally published by Pendragon Press (2010)
ISBN 190686425X

A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite of mine this time of year. The movie that is, and has been since I was a little kid. Everyone has their favorite Christmas movie; that one's mine, namely the Alistair Sims adaptation. That's how I came to know the story, and always will, even after reading Dickens' own words. As for a Christmas read, I don't really have one. It's Halloween that gets my attention when it comes to seasonal books. For Sparrowhawk, however, I may make an exception.

Paul Finch's darkly-tinged novella is set against the sooty backdrop of 1840s London. Captain John Sparrowhawk is rotting away in a debtors prison (onga familiar setting in more than one Dickens story) until a mysterious and alluring woman, Miss Evangeline, visits him and offers him a job and a new start. His debts are paid in full and all he has to do is protect an anonymous man from three nefarious persons out to do him harm. Given Sparrowhawk's harrowing experiences in Afghanistan, he's well suited to do some muscle work, though he carries a good deal of emotional baggage given his fall from grace when he returned from the war, and that threatens to undermine his second chance at life.

In a modest 130-or-so pages, Paul builds a rich and memorable story of a tormented man whose torment has not nearly reached its end. London is captured expertly, warts and all, in this story, and the dialogue between John Sparrowhawk and Miss Evangeline is magnetic. The back-and-forth between them initially feels a bit familiar with the dashing rogue and femme fatale vibe, but it quickly develops into something all its own, with just enough sinisterness to make you wonder just which side she's on. The struggle doesn't come from Miss Evangeline, but from the powers that be out to harm the man Sparrowhawk is sworn to protect--and do so without the man ever knowing he exists.

The ending packs a punch and the allusions to Dickens' A Christmas Carol are a treat as the story progresses. It is 19th-century London, after all. I'm a guy who continues to struggle with appreciating historical fiction, at least the kind that steeps itself in the language of the time. As much as I'm a fan of Dickens for A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, his prose is a chore to get through more often than not. Paul Finch, on the other hand, offers a style of writing that harkens to that time but offers enough of a contemporary feel to make a schlub like me get immersed in the story with little effort.

You can also read my review of Paul Finch's King Death.

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