A slightly lackluster mystery in a brilliantly realized Scotland, narrated by one of the best voices in modern fantasy.
The third of T. L. Huchu's Edinburgh Nights series (see Adri’s review of the first here), The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle is set at an actual castle on the west side of the Isle of Skye. Instead of an alternate-history Scottish urban mystery set in the gritty streets of magical Edinburgh, T. L. Huchu instead presents us with his version of a country house mystery.
The Society of Skeptical Inquirers (Scotland’s professional magicians’ association) is having their annual conference at Dunvegan Castle, and things are tense. Rivalries between Scottish magic schools, between Highland clans, and between Glaswegian and Edinburghian librarians simmer with varying degrees of intensity, ready to erupt at the worst possible moment. The worstness of possible moments is further intensified by the arrival of representative of the English crown, who shows a distressing interest in revoking Scotland’s devolved powers of magical governance.
Against this backdrop of cultural magico-political tension arrives the conference’s guest of honour. The Grand Debtera of Ethiopia has come to cement a ground-breaking alliance between Scottish and Ethiopian magic by loaning a valuable scroll to the Society of Skeptical Inquirers, which contains information on magical theory previously considered impossible. Naturally, things go very badly: the scroll is stolen, a librarian is murdered, and the head of the Society of Skeptical Inquirers casts an impenetrable shield around Dunvegan Castle to prevent anyone from entering or exiting. The culprit is among the conference attendees! Whodunnit? And why?
Our narrator, Ropa Moyo, is a teenage intern working (unpaid) for the head of the Society of Skeptical Inquirers. As her boss is occupied by the rigours of keeping the impenetrable shield up, she is tasked with finding the scroll and solving the murder.
As far as mysteries go, this book is a little frustrating. The decision to put a fifteen-year-old unpaid intern in charge of pursuing the mystery is forced and unconvincing. In previous books, Ropa had her own reasons to investigate weird shenanigans, which she pursued independently. Here for the first time she is given official sanction and support, which seems a bridge too far for any fifteen year-old. The bridge gets even ricketier in light of the unveiled contempt in which most of the other conference attendees hold her. What’s more, no matter how diligently she investigates, there is very little sense of progress. Ropa pursues lead after lead, but they rarely seem fruitful, and as pressure mounts on her to report her progress, she keeps asserting that she’ll have everything wrapped up in a day or two, not to worry, she’s got it all under control. To the reader, her lack of progress is so striking that it's pretty clear she must be lying to everyone. Now, Ropa’s history as an opportunistic gig worker who is not above petty (and not so petty) thieving to keep herself and her family afloat means that it’s entirely within character for her to be lying through her teeth about her progress. But keeping secrets is for the snotty obnoxious upper-crust magicians sneering down at her speech and education and behaviour; it’s not for us. On every page Ropa invites us into her head, tells us her thoughts and feelings and worries and hopes and goals. So when she turns out to be keeping secrets from the reader, too, it feels like a kick in the teeth.
Yet for all that the plot is a bit weak, this book is more than its plot, and everything else that it is is charming and delightful. Ropa’s irreverant narrative voice is wonderfully drawn; and her eclectic independent learning means that she has odd bits of knowledge drawn from all sorts of sources, equipping her with a broad foundation of useful bits and bobs. She’s alert to the sunk cost fallacy because she heard about it in a podcast the other day, and in this book she’s been making friends with Machiavelli’s The Prince, whose influence colours all her interactions. After an outburst at a formal dinner in which she pushes back against the snobbery levied against her, she considers, “Maybe I should re-evaluate how I’m reading Machiavelli. Normally I’m cruising by on Eastern martial texts which emphasize subtlety. But my pal Nicco’s more of a bull in a China shop kind of guy when it comes to political theory. Let me stick with it though, ‘cause I heard he delivers a mean pizza when it comes to landing an argument.” (Chapter VII). I would read a book about Ropa picking at her toenails if its her voice describing the state of her cuticles.
Another strength of this book is its deeply embedded Scottishness. This goes well beyond the dialogue (which, I hasten to add, avoids all of the ear-rattling tweeness of forced ‘och aye, I didnae see the wee puir lassie’ Scottish ‘brogue’). The nature of the unnamed Catastrophe that has devastated Scotland, deepening class divides and savaging the economy, feel like a pretty dead-on evocation of the general opinion of Brexit north of the border. An offhand remark about how Glasgwegians aren’t averse to bit of sectarianism now and again invokes a very real social issue in actual Glasgow, in which rival football teams—The Celtics and the Rangers—have come to serve as proxies for Catholic-Protestant rivalries. It is actually illegal in Glasgow to sing certain songs, because of their association with extreme sectarian violence. (https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/old-firm-clash-songs-what-5060640) Indeed, for half a century actual Glasgow has been perceived as the dirty, crime-riddled working class city, a foil to Edinburgh, which holds government, art, education, and all the higher and better elements of culture. In this context, a conflict in Huchu’s world between the Glasgow library of magical books and its Edinburgh counterpart takes on a deeper meaning. After the Clydeside Blitz in WWII, the most valuable magical books held in Glasgow were removed to the Calton Hill Library in Edinburgh (the titular Library of the Dead in the first book of this series) for safekeeping. They have never since been returned. The Calton Hill Library instead reinforced its own magical status on the strength of the newly expanded collection, and have been refusing all subsequent requests to return them, claiming that the books were given as a ‘permanent loan’.
This bibliographic colonialism is a smaller version of a theme recuring at all scales throughout the book. What Edinburgh did to Glasgow, England wants to do to Scotland. The political situation in Huchu’s world faithfully reflects the state of the real UK: Scotland is subordinate to England, but nevertheless retains certain devolved powers, such as education (especially magical education). The people that want to unify with England stand in uneasy tension with the people agitating for more complete Scottish independence.
And, of course, at another level upwards, we have the history of European colonialism in Africa coloring Ethiopian magic’s relationship with Britain. There’s a reason the Grand Debtera chose to loan the scroll to Scottish magicians rather than English ones, and it’s not an accident that the nature of the Ethiopian-Scottish agreement—the loan of an irreplaceable magical text--resonates with the Glasgow-Edinburgh librarians’ conflict. These are all exponents of the same colonial phenomenon.
So, in sum, although the actual plot of this house-party mystery was a bit mediocre, the narrative, the setting, and the way it inhabits a fully recognizable Scotland within this alternative magical world Huchu has created, are unparalleled. I will take great pleasure in reading the next installment in the Edinburgh Nights series.
Nerd coefficient: 7/10: An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws
- Effective translation of Scottish politics into an alternate world
- Delightful narrative voice
- Slightly meh mystery plot
Huchu, T. L. The Mystery at Dunvegan Castle [Tor Publishing Group, 2023].
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.