A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Meet Willem Townsend: London-based entrepreneur, loyal friend and loving uncle. To all intents and purposes a man who has everything going for him. But Willem feels bound by his responsibilities, and knows it’s time to break free – to do the unexpected. And so he embarks on a secretive internet romance, which soon leads to preparations for a weekend rendezvous in Southend. Jake, Willem’s best mate, is concerned by this development, but he begrudgingly agrees that Will does need to step out of his box and find some love. After all, Jake is coming to grips with his own budding romance, so who is he to argue? As the weekend passes, Jake is troubled by Will’s lack of contact, and failure to return home. He enlists the help and support of those closest to Will as he tries to find his friend, and in doing so he opens the door on some unexpected revelations about both Willem, and himself. Meanwhile in a garden in Essex, a man is found. Bereft of clothes and memory, this man may hold the answer to a four thousand year old mystery. And in a converted factory on Canvey Island, the Three are watching … and waiting.
I’ll be honest here. Twice; Firstly, I share a publisher with Andy Frankham-Allen and, secondly, I didn’t expect to love this book as much as it has turned out I do. In my younger days, I lapped up with great joy both the vampire novels of Anne Rice and the vast and fascinating fantasy novels of Stephen Donaldson and, to my mind, there’s been nothing to beat either of them since.
I’m pleased to say now that I’ve been at last proved wrong in that assumption. Andy Frankham-Allen’s “Garden Saga” fantasy series, of which Seeker is the first, takes the best of both those authors and combines it into a slow-burn, deep and surprisingly rich novel of one man, Willem (or Will) who, like Donaldson’s magnificent leper hero, Thomas Covenant, isn’t at all what he thinks he is. Frankly, I was gripped from the first page and couldn’t put the darn thing down. Even when I had to, for minor issues like eating and sleeping and going to work, I found myself pondering on the characters, Will, his friend Jake and, later, the mysterious and ancient Frederick and his colleagues, and what they were doing and what they might do in the future.
At first glance and as you begin reading, there’s not much to tell you, even with those hints in the blurb, that this is a supernatural novel with the latter half of it firmly set in the world of the upyr (who are like vampires but more sophisticated). Actually I liked that, and can very much see the reasoning for it; the supernatural world would be as nothing without the solidity of the natural world to base itself on and, besides, we do need to see the ins and outs, the joys and difficulties of Will’s everyday life, before everything changes. I also enjoyed, as I say above, the slow-burn elements of this story, which in any case has a heck of a lot going for it on all fronts.
Within the story, there’s a pleasing balance of characters and plot, and the author handles the demands of a multiple viewpoint approach with style and lightness of touch. I also thought the way loyalties shimmer and shift amongst the upyr people, all of whom have different secret agendas from each other, really raised the levels of tension throughout the plot. It’s extremely readable, and the facts of upyr lore and tradition, together with the input of Egyptian history and legend, are well handled, so that they never overshadow the characters as they grow and change on their journey to (partial) enlightenment. I also enjoyed the interplay between human and upyr, and how these characteristics reveal themselves within individuals.
Though I quickly came to realise that I actually cared about all the characters, even the villainous ones, or the ones with fewer scenes, such as Will’s parents or Jake’s short-term girlfriend, it was Will himself and, later on, the upyr Frederick who seriously caught my attention. Will is a fascinating main character and well able to hold the story together. It’s going to be hard to say anything particular to the point about him, due to the complex and wonderful journey he embarks upon in order to find out who he really is and due to the spoilers inherent in that journey, but it’s definitely worth the ride: in the first half of the book, he’s sympathetic, brave and utterly understandable; and in the second half, he’s exciting, dangerous and really rather moving.
It’s interesting that the personal journey of Frederick is as gripping, though it starts much later as the first half of the novel concentrates largely on Will. And it’s somehow appropriate that Frederick’s arc is in many ways a mirror image of Will’s: he starts off as someone exciting, dangerous and the near-villain of the piece, and yet ends up as both sympathetic and brave. As well as rather confused, bless him. It was a nice touch to the depiction of character. Besides, I can’t help but warm to any being who has the ability to shed his fingernails in a crisis and grow some pretty deadly talons in the space of seconds – it’s a skill I sometimes wish I had, and would be very useful on occasion.
I was also delighted to see that a large part of the book is set in Southend – at last! My home county finally takes its place centre-stage in the literary world. It’s been a long time coming, say I … Indeed Southend is key to the story and to the upyr and other legends within the book. Much as Cardiff is for Torchwood, Southend is for Seeker, and all the more glorious for it.
Also well played within this work is the homosexual content of it – Will is gay, and his search for a new boyfriend is at the beginning the catalyst to everything that happens afterwards; moreover his friend Jake is in the slow process of coming out but not quite there yet; and Frederick, well Frederick is a law unto himself and does basically what he likes, though his relationship with his fellow upyr, Celeste, is also close. That said, it’s not in effect a gay novel as the relationships are not overstated in any way, nor is the sex, on the odd occasion it happens, or nearly happens, graphically described, whether gay or straight, but is perfectly placed in context with the characters involved and the overarching narrative drive.
Actually the only real issue I have with this one is I don’t like the cover one bit. It’s just too vampirey (if that’s a word at all) and rather tasteless (in my opinion) and I don’t know who those people are in the picture but they don’t remind me of any of the characters at all. But please don’t let that put you off – this is definitely a book for people who don’t like vampires that much (as I don’t, any more) and besides, there was an older cover for the original self-published version that is nicer by far (which also has the original, far more snazzy, and very appropriate, title, Seek3r), so I’ll be hanging on to that copy for sure:
Finally, I can’t leave this review without saying how truly great the ending is. It brings a kind of closure for two of the characters involved, including Will, and also sets us up very nicely indeed for the sequel. It’s both a subtle and a powerful finish. So I can definitely recommend this book, whether or not you’re a particular fantasy genre fan. It’s a quite magnificent novel and I shall look forward with much anticipation to the second in the series.
Seeker by Andy Frankham-Allen (Hirst Publishing and Untreed Reads 2011) ISBN: 978-1907959134 (paperback) and B004SHNNTG (Kindle)
[Anne is very happy to discover a modern fantasy series she can actually enjoy, and one set largely in her home county too.]