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BOOK REVIEW: "Circle of Shadows" by Imogen Robertson

British novelist Imogen Robertson rose swiftly in the ranks of historical mystery authors with the launch of Instrument of Darkness, her first book in the Westerman/Crowther series. Her latest and fourth book in the series, Circle of Shadows (Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, June 2013), secures her position as a writer of lovely prose that transforms a murder and mayhem-laden subgenre into a literary treat.

Circle of Shadows transports Robertson’s oddly compatible 18th-century forensic team—landed widow Harriet Westerman and titled recluse Gabriel Crowther—to the fictional German Duchy of Maulberg. There, they are greeted by a perplexing murder that has cast suspicion on Harriet’s hapless brother-in-law, and a sequence of additional deaths, all embroiled in court intrigue and indiscretions.

Robertson’s complex plot, with a few equilibrium-defying twists, is bolstered by the clever repartee of a fabulous cast of characters. Among many, there is a thoughtful but not quite apt inspector, a bogus psychic, a math whiz of a young spy, a secret Freemason sect, a wizened alchemist, a bastardly blacksmith, a virtuoso castrato of ambiguous allegiance, a duke of even less clear intentions, and the Al-Said brothers, makers of automata—lifelike mechanical creatures.

Such rich resources, combined with Robertson’s captivating prose and Georgian-period details, have resulted in a thriller that will challenge armchair Sherlocks, while charming historical fiction fans. And the author’s evident delight with automata provides a fun plot thread that makes one hope there might just be a bit of alchemic magic.

Circle of Shadows, which serves well as a stand-alone novel, is an enchanting panacea for the blight of mediocre writing passing today as thrillers, with neither hide nor hair of a supernatural being. Perhaps that is the magic of this book.

That, and Robertson’s original path to publication, which offers an encouraging story for aspiring authors. According to London-based newspaper, The Telegraph, “She submitted the first 1,000 words of a novel she had yet to write to The Daily Telegraph’s Novel in a Year competition in 2007.” Robertson was one of five winners, and twelve months later she sold her full manuscript.

Learn more about Imogen Robertson at her website.

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Would you like to win a copy of Circle of Shadows? Send me the most entertaining bit of verse—a limerick perhaps?—about alchemy or automata, and the book is yours. What would make it the most entertaining? Other than being your original writing, I don’t know—let’s see what you come up with. Submit your entry(ies) to kbgressitt@gmail.com. I’ll post the best ones, and we’ll go from there. Deadline is Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and have been published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, The Ocean Beach Rag, The Progressive Post and San Diego Free Press. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.