This book came from Netgalley for review (a long time ago – sorry about that) – thank you to NG and the publisher.
I seem to say this a lot lately: this was not what I expected. It's a Dickensian, Dumas-esque, dark mystery with fantastic elements … I think that covers most of it. That The Count of Monte Cristo is in the book's genealogy is without doubt.
It all begins with a tussle in a tavern, as Thaddeus Grainger defends the honor of a young working-class woman against someone who sees her as fair game. Thaddeus saves the girl, Cassie Redruth, and earns himself a duel with her aggressor, to her dismay. By the next evening, Thaddeus is nursing his wounds – but his rival is dead, and not from their duel. Thaddeus knows that, and his friends believe it, but the constabulary do not, and he is arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned – he never stood a chance.
And there's where The Count of Monte Cristo comes in – except that the conspiracy behind the scenes of The Raven's Seal is much bigger and more impersonal. They don't care about Thaddeus, or Cassie, or even much about the murdered man. The latter had to be put out of the way, and Thaddeus was a convenient scapegoat. As a larger entity, this shadowy force is harder to discover, harder to get at, and harder to overcome – especially when the troops arrayed against it consist of a young housemaid, a man in prison, an impoverished writer, and an old man. Goliath, meet David.
The description on Goodreads for this specifically states that it is set in late 18th-century England – and that surprises me. I don't know if I failed to pay attention at the right times, but I had this pegged as being set elsewhere entirely, a setting that looks and sounds and smells like but isn't quite 17-something England. I think that's my only real problem with the book, is that the setting – Bellstrom Gaol – is fictional, yet it was supposed to be England. I could have wished for either more of a footing in reality, or a complete disconnect from reality. It isn't a fantasy, really, at all – but it feels like it ought to be. In fact, it feels a great deal like Ellen Kushner's fantasies of manners – and that isn't in any way a bad thing.