By Ian Weir
The label of “historical novel” has now become sufficient in itself to stand for pretty much everything that is wrong with contemporary literary fiction. Fairly or not, we expect these books to be long-winded, conventional-minded morality tales (that morality reflecting modern norms, of course), composed in an inflated, artificial style thought to be the way people wrote in ye olde days, and, it almost goes without saying, dull beyond endurance. It’s easy to forget that in the days of Sir Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas the historical novel was meant to be a form of popular entertainment and escapist fun. That tradition is still alive today – in one of the best recent examples, Neal Stephenson’s swashbuckling Baroque Cycle, Dumas is even thanked in the acknowledgements – but it is becoming an increasingly rare thing.
Daniel O’Thunder, by award-winning screenwriter Ian Weir, is that rare thing. The titular hero is a veteran pugilist in mid-nineteenth century London who also runs a mission house. A rag-tag group of seekers – including a fallen minister, a foul-mouthed child prostitute, a hack journalist, and an old army comrade – are swept into Daniel’s orbit and take turns narrating the story, which builds up to the Hammer of Heaven’s challenging the Devil himself (“with all his Infernal Powers”) to a bare-knuckled bout, London Prize Rules.
Weir makes the plot step smartly, and the language crackles with the first-person immediacy of different voices. Historical background and period mood are less important than the well-paced, character-driven, action-filled narrative. There are murders, rapes, hangings, prize fights, a city-wide riot, and lots of thrilling escapes. “Bangs and whizzes – startling effects – characters who shriek and stab and get on with it,” is how a theatre director explains the way to grab an audience, and one gets the sense it’s a lesson Weir has already learned. He also has more than a few tricks and twists up his sleeve. Identity in particular is at issue throughout, and the reader constantly has to re-assess who Daniel, Jack, Nell, and the Devil really are and the nature of their relations to each other. By the time the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion, which is set in the Klondike during the gold rush, we feel we’re on very shaky ground indeed, drifting between dementia and the supernatural. Not that these are mutually exclusive categories.
All of which makes for a fun trip into the thrilling days of yesteryear. A lot more fun and thrilling than we have come to expect.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2009.