Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

Talus and the Frozen KingTitle: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Series: Talus #1
Published: 26 March 2014
Publisher: Solaris
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: historical fiction, crime and mystery
Rating: 4/10

Talus and the Frozen King has a very nice selling point – the world’s first detective. According to the blurb anyway. The novel doesn’t openly make the same claim, but it’s set in the second or third millennium BC, and Talus is the only person around who thinks like a detective – observing the world around him to pick up clues and use them to draw conclusions about people, situations and crimes. 

Talus and his companion Bran are travelling to the source of the Northern Lights. Talus heard that the source of the Northern Lights is where the world intersects with the afterdream (their version of the afterlife), and he’s on a quest to see if the afterdream is real. Bran hopes to meet his dead wife Keyli there, but he’s on the verge of giving up. Before he can discuss it with Talus, they are drawn to Creyak, a small island where the inhabitants have just found the body of their king, naked and frozen in the snow (the fully clothed figure on the cover is totally inaccurate). Although the king’s death is mysterious, it is simply assumed that “his time had come”, and burial preparations are about to being. Talus convinces the shaman and the king’s six sons that it was a murder and if they allow him to investigate, he can identify the killer. His methods are strange and often shocking to them, but Talus is smart enough to prove his worth.

One thing that worried me about the story was the idea that the people of Creyak need Talus to solve this murder because no one else would consider the possibility of murder, let alone investigate one. But Edwards is quick to provide an explanation – killing the king is unthinkable so it’s assumed no one would ever do it. According to their culture, the king

would have been a living vessel for the spirits of all the tribe’s ancestors. To strike out at such a man was to strike out at every Creyak villager who had ever lived and died, all the way back to the first dawn. Killing a king wasn’t just murder; it was genocide.

Genocide might be the wrong word, since the murderer can’t actually kill those who are already dead, but he’d still be committing some kind of extreme violence against them. After death, the murderer would be horribly tortured by the ancestors for eternity. Thus no sane person would kill a king. Even when Talus raises the possibility of murder, the king’s eldest son Tharn is not particularly interested in an investigation because, according to their beliefs, the murderer will inevitably suffer greater punishments than any living being could deal out.

I thought this was an interesting concept, and it ties in nicely with the issues of faith and the afterdream that are also driving Talus and Bran. So I got off to a fairly good start with the book, although there were some issue that I had with the worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding issues are quite serious. Also the characters aren’t compelling and eventually the story faltered and fell flat, so the whole thing ended up being a huge disappointment. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, and you can stop reading right here if you’re happy to take that opinion at face value, but I will, of course explain myself.

Firstly, Talus and Bran. They are very obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Talus is very smart and curious, but he can be extremely condescending, especially to Bran. LIke Watson, Bran has a handicap (a crippled hand) and he’s a big brawny guy. Bran states that Talus isn’t very good at understanding human nature, and Talus admits he’s baffled by certain things, like the way love can drive people to do terrible things. Of course they’re not exactly the same as Holmes and Watson. Talus can’t actually work as a detective; he’s a bard. Bran was a fisherman, not a doctor, and was never in a war.

I don’t have a major problem with Edwards using the Holmes/Watson model, but there does seem to be a kind of laziness to it, particularly since the similarities don’t always feel natural. I’m not sure why Bran puts up with Talus’s rudeness. Watson puts up with Holmes because he’s fascinated by him, considers him a good friend, and accepts that he has mental problems (at least in the BBC TV series), but it’s not the same with Bran. Also, Talus doesn’t seem to have serious problems understanding human nature as both he and Bran suggest. Talus can be insensitive, but he’s not as dysfunctional as Holmes. There’s a scene where he’s quick to notice that a man and a woman are having an affair, while Bran doesn’t catch on until later. And as a successful bard, Talus is adept at picking stories that his audience would like to hear, which implies that he’s very good at reading people. This idea that Talus doesn’t understand human nature is something that only seems to be trotted out when it suits the narrative.

Then, the case. As I said, it’s intriguing at first, and it briefly got more interesting as we learned more about the king Hashath and why people wanted to kill him, but then it just wilted. It lacks tension, it doesn’t have the brilliant deductions that you get in a Sherlock Holmes story (I consider it a fair comparison, since Edwards insists on basing Talus on Holmes), and the resolution is simultaneously mess and dead boring. Of course Talus solves the mystery, but not in a way that makes him look as smart as he purports to be. At the beginning, Talus points out that the killer could have been a woman, which is something Bran hadn’t considered. It makes Talus look quite open-minded, but afterwards he never really views any of the female characters as suspects even though they had very clear motives. The issue of faith comes up so often that it seems key, but at the end it has little to do with the story. I understand that maybe Edwards was throwing out red herrings to get the reader more engaged, but they turn out to be frustrating more than anything else. At the end, the truth is far less interesting than the other possibilities.

And, the worldbuilding. There’s no fantasy here, but like any novel set in the past, the author needs to immerse us in the context. My friend Barbara bought the book and joined me for a read-along, and I was very glad for her company because she’s an archaeologist and provided some valuable insight into the historical details, whereas I am a complete twit when it comes to anything historical. That said, I was deeply suspicious or critical about lots of things before Barbara even said a word.

For example, we’re told that Talus went to Egypt, saw the pyramids, and had philosophical conversations with the a queen named Tia. In fact it was she who told him about the Northern Lights intersecting with the afterlife.

Would an Egyptian queen know about the Northern Lights? Would Talus have gone to Egypt? It seems unlikely, given the difficulty of travel and the relatively short life spans of people at the time, that Talus would have had the chance to travel from his birthplace, to Egypt, and then all the way to Creyak, which seems to be in The Orkneys of Scotland. But that’s merely implausible; what seems virtually impossible is that the shaman Mishina says he’s seen the Egyptian pyramids as well as the pyramids in the jungles of Central America. So he’s not only travelled to Egypt but to Central America and back.  

I very grudgingly allowed for the idea that he’d gone on some kind of expedition but Barbara quickly put paid to that, explaining that it was theoretically possible but that there was no likely reason for it to have happened given the resources required, the time it would take, lack of knowledge about their destination, likelihood of survival, etc.

Barbara brought up other issues. The concept of the afterdream is aboriginal, not European. She felt that the concept of a king was too modern (a different word for the leader would have been better), while the idea of killing him wasn’t that outlandish, since lots of people sacrificed their chiefs or killed unsatisfactory rulers. I have to agree with the use of the word “king” – it sounds nice in the title, but Hashath only ruled over a small island; hardly what you’d consider a kingdom. There are also much more serious issues with the time period, which I’m glad Barbara mentioned because otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered checking the dates.

The Egyptian queen Tia (Tiye) places the story in the 14th century BC, but at this time they were burying their kings in tombs, rather than pyramids as Talus claims. The Central American pyramids that Mishina saw weren’t being built until around 500BC, and most were built in AD. The press release I got states that the novel is set in 3000BC, although I’m not sure if the publisher checked that with Edwards, because in the author’s note he specifically states that he’s not going to give us a date. The novel is all over the place anyway.

I also had a huge issue with the writing style – it’s very modern. Too modern even for a Sherlock Holmes story. The only thing about the language that’s supposed to give us some idea of the context is that the word “justice” apparently doesn’t exist yet, and people don’t understand what Talus means when he tells them to “prove” something. And that’s pretty weak. The writing is easy to read, but it completely dissociates the reader from the context. I’d happily choose a strange and difficult style over easy reading that fails the story.

Edwards uses his author’s note to make excuses for the lack of historical accuracy, and he sums it up as such:

Thought is made not of stone, but of story. To really understand the humanity of the past, I think you have to put aside the facts and indulge in a little fiction.

That sounds nice enough, but it hasn’t worked in practice. More research and greater accuracy would have done wonders for this book.  Instead, I find myself thinking that I’d have a more authentic – and enjoyable – Neolithic experience going north of the Wall with George R.R. Martin’s wildlings.

Basically this book is a mess, and a boring one at that.