By Alicia Rudd

Woman shrugging
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From its initial façade, the latest novel by international best-selling author Anne Rice carries the attractive promise of being a ‘dark gothic novel’. This description is perhaps true in terms of its preoccupation with the religious persecutions of medieval Jewish people and the awe-inspiring architecture of enchanting sacred buildings, which feature strongly throughout the novel since they hold a special interest for the story’s central protagonist.

The expectation of a novel filled with ‘suspense’ and intrigue is not quite fulfilled, however. Dramatic battle scenes perhaps, and the conflict between man and the unseen spiritual forces of good and evil would have helped the story live up to its captivating synopsis. Rice’s lead character, Toby O’Dare is introduced to us from the outset as a particularly shady and even quite frightening character, but whom later we discover is only a loner with no genuine desire to hurt people. In spite of Toby’s working as a contracted serial killer, he works alone and without the benefits of strong connections in the criminal underworld that otherwise may have encouraged readers to view him as a serious threat and menace to society at large.

Rice’s writing is typically biographical, with the plot concerned primarily with Toby’s search for acceptance and fulfilment in life following a difficult and poverty-stricken childhood with a bent policeman for a father and a drunken alcoholic mother. Perhaps rather predictably then, there subsequently follows a moment of spiritual re-awakening in which Toby realises the error of his ways, thus paving the way for a long and rather arduous search for a new kind of inner spiritual peace.

The author’s decision to shy away from creating a truly serious assassin again lessens the sense of dread and fear in the reader’s perception of an impulsive and otherwise unpredictable character. Having said this of course, the depiction is quite in keeping with Rice’s earlier ‘Vampire Chronicles’ in which her characters are portrayed, perhaps surprisingly as humane, even caring people, in spite of their rather macabre reputation as blood-sucking phantoms of the night.

As soon becomes apparent however, the guilt and the need to perform good works to make up for the sins Toby has committed, shouts unreservedly of Catholic doctrine with the insistence that the repetition of good actions will help to compensate for all the bad deeds Toby has carried out in his former life.

In order for this to happen, Toby has to accept the guidance and discernment of an angel who explains to him that he must walk back into the past to help put right the actions of others that have led to the false accusation of two innocent people. The angel explains that since God dwells outside of time, he uses angels to affect the earthly destinies of His children from the past, the present, and the future. The angel then proceeds to explain Toby’s part in God’s ‘grand master plan’ which results in Toby travelling to a place in medieval Norwich.

As this period of history is brought back to life, Toby plays the part of a Dominican brother, which also happened to be a lifelong ambition from his youth before he went ‘bad’. To achieve this, he must travel in ‘Angel Time’ to a place where Jewish people were persecuted for their religion by Christian believers. But before we are allowed to feel enthralled with the prospect of travelling through time in the company of heavenly multitudes whilst experiencing the wonders of spiritual realms among the angelic hosts, their presence in the text is swiftly chopped out, and the narrative is again replaced by Toby’s re-telling of events.

The story could have done with a little more imaginative emphasis on the mystical world of spirits and divine intervention, with a greater stress given to the interplay between Toby and his chosen angel. As it is, it feels as though Toby is left virtually stranded in medieval England and pretty much left to get on with things by himself with the use of guess work as a guide to what he should be doing and more or less playing things by ear.

This, then, rather undermines the concept the author is trying to get across, with her lead character supposedly acting as an important helper to the angel and thereby bringing about the greater good. This lack of contextualised exchange in dialogue between the two characters has the effect of watering down Toby’s overall importance to once again allow Toby to escape from his real life in the present, with the detraction into a life he could have lead as a priest living in the past.

Although Rice is to be commended for her defence of a strong moral stance, in which good overcomes ‘bad’ in human nature, it remains however within a pondering and rather plodding, religious framework. The constant reflection into the past throughout the novel’s entirety comes across as a slightly unhealthy morbidity, bordering on an obsessive fixation with life in the past to help Toby learn from his own mistakes.

Clearly, however, Rice’s intention is to endear the reader to her central character in order to discover how the actions of other people encourage him to make the right choices in his own life. But the concern is whether readers, other than die-hard fans, will have the patience to stay the journey with Toby O’Dare as he begins his next quest in sequels to this story.


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