There were several things that drew me to Master of Shadows: the setting (the fall of Constantinople in 1453) was one, and the protagonist (the Scottish engineer, John Grant) was another. Most of all, I was curious to see what Neil Oliver’s fiction would be like. Oliver is best known as a television presenter and historian – he recently presented the BBC series Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice – and although he has previously published some non-fiction, Master of Shadows is his first novel.
I have mentioned Constantinople, but much of the first half of the novel is actually set in Scotland, where the soldier Badr Khassan has come to fulfil a deathbed promise, having sworn to protect the wife and child of his friend, the late Patrick Grant. He finds Jessie Grant and young John just in time to interrupt an attempt on their lives by the men of Patrick’s enemy, Sir Robert Jardine of Hawkshaw. Pursued by the vengeful archer, Angus Armstrong, Badr and John leave Scotland and travel across Europe, making a living by fighting as mercenaries. Along the way they meet a mysterious female warrior called Lena who is also a target of the same group of Scots and who is hiding some important secrets regarding her own identity and John’s.
Eventually John arrives in Constantinople, one of the final strongholds of the Byzantine Empire, now under threat from the mighty Ottoman army. As the Emperor Constantine XI prepares to defend his city and Sultan Mehmet II gathers his forces outside the walls, two more characters come to the forefront of our story: Prince Constantine, the Emperor’s crippled son, and Yaminah, the girl he loves. The lives of John, Yaminah and the Prince come together during the dramatic Siege of Constantinople and the final days of the Byzantine Empire.
Master of Shadows is a combination of history, adventure and romance set against a backdrop of what is surely one of the most fascinating and significant periods in Europe’s history – the collapse of one empire and the expansion of another. I thought the book was generally well written and, knowing that the author is an archaeologist and historian, I also felt confident that it would have been well researched. However, he does take some liberties with certain historical characters; I really disliked Lena’s story, although I can’t explain why without telling you who she really is and that would be a spoiler! There’s also a supernatural aspect to the novel – John Grant is able to feel the Earth moving through space and can sense the people around him without using sight or touch – but this didn’t become such a big part of the story as I’d feared at first.
I had previously encountered John Grant as a character in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series (under the slightly different name of John le Grant) and was quite fond of him, so I was looking forward to seeing how he would be portrayed by another author. Very little is known about the real John Grant; records show that a Johannes Grant was employed as an engineer by the Byzantine Empire and his expertise in counter-tunnelling prevented the Turks from invading Constantinople from under the walls. He was originally thought to have been German but more recent research suggested that he was actually Scottish. This lack of historical information has allowed Neil Oliver to create a whole backstory for John to explain how he came to be in Constantinople. The character is quite different from the one in Dunnett’s novels, but I did still like him (although I found it irritating that he is always given his full name of John Grant, sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph, and is never just referred to as John).
Master of Shadows is an interesting first novel – I particularly liked the Scottish chapters near the beginning and the romance between Prince Constantine and Yaminah – but there were too many little things that didn’t work for me. As well as the Lena storyline and the supernatural element I’ve mentioned above, there’s a lot of jumping around in time which makes it slightly difficult to follow what is happening. I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more of Neil Oliver’s fiction, but I might try one of his non-fiction books instead.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.