The Scottish author SG MacLean is best known for her Seeker series and before that, the Alexander Seaton series originally published under the name Shona MacLean. I haven’t read any of those books (although I do own The Redemption of Alexander Seaton), but when I saw that her new novel, The Bookseller of Inverness, was a standalone, it seemed like a good place to start.
Set in Scotland in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, the ‘bookseller’ of the title is Iain MacGillivray, a survivor of the Battle of Culloden. Six years have now passed since he was wounded on the battlefield and although he escaped with his life, his face has been left badly scarred. Still traumatised by the death of his cousin Lachlan, Iain has been living quietly since the failed rising, selling books and running a small public library in Inverness. One day, Iain notices a stranger searching through the shelves, opening and closing books; he won’t tell Iain what he is looking for and only leaves when the shop is shut for the night.
The next morning, Iain opens up the shop again to find the stranger dead on the floor, his throat cut and beside him a sword with a white cockade on the hilt – the symbol of the Jacobites. The murder coincides with the reappearance of Iain’s father Hector, a prominent Jacobite who fled Scotland years earlier but still hasn’t given up hope of seeing a Stuart king on the throne once more. When more murders follow, Iain and Hector begin to search for a missing book containing the names of traitors to the Jacobite cause – a book they believe could hold the key to finding the killer.
Although the search for the book and the murderer drives the plot forward, I didn’t think the mystery was a particularly strong one. I was more interested in the historical detail, the descriptions of everyday life in 18th century Inverness and the insights into the mood, politics and changing loyalties in the years following Culloden. I’ve read about the Jacobites many times before and would prefer authors to explore other periods of Scottish history, but MacLean’s enthusiasm for this subject and setting shine through and her very detailed author’s note shows that a huge amount of research went into the writing of this novel. I’m glad I already had some knowledge of this period, though, as I think I might have found the twists and turns of the story a bit difficult to follow otherwise. MacLean also incorporates some subplots that touch on wider topics such as the slave trade and indentured servitude.
Most of the characters in the book are fictional, although many of them, as I discovered from the author’s note, are based on the lives and experiences of real people. One historical figure who plays an important part in the story without actually appearing in it is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat – known as the ‘Old Fox’ – who readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will remember as Jamie Fraser’s grandfather. Iain MacGillivray himself is an engaging character with an interesting past; I enjoyed getting to know him and reading about the work he and his assistants put into collecting, restoring and selling – or lending – books to the people of Inverness.
I’m pleased to have finally read something by MacLean. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton will be next!
Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 50/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.