A dead warrior king frozen in winter ice. Six grieving sons, each with his own reason to kill. Two weary travellers caught up in a web of suspicion and deceit.
In a time long before our own, wandering bard Talus and his companion Bran journey to the island realm of Creyak, where the king has been murdered.
From clues scattered among the island’s mysterious barrows and stone circles, they begin their search for his killer. Nobody is above suspicion, from the king’s heir to the tribal shaman, from the woman steeped in herb-lore to the visiting warlord. And when death strikes again, Talus and Bran realise nothing is what it seems.
Creyak is a place of secrets and spirits, mystery and myth. It will take a clever man indeed to unravel the truth. The kind of man this ancient world has not seen before.
Talus is a novel with undeniable potential for excellence; prehistoric detective, ancient geopolitics, a chance to explore the social world of a purely oral culture. Unfortunately, it lets an awful lot of that potential slip through its fingers.
Talus is peopled by a central pairing we’ve seen before all too often; from the BBC’s Sherlock to CBS’s Elementary, these characters – the effective, human companion who keeps their overly-intellectual companion on the straight and narrow, reminding them of the importance of the human element in explaining crime, and the cut-off, driven, hypervigilant and extremely intelligent but very strange man they accompany. Talus, in Edwards’ novel, fulfills the role of Sherlock very precisely, needing Bran (his Watson) but unable to tell him so. The rest of the cast are equally uncompelling, with two exceptions; thankfully, these are the (two) female characters, who – with some frustrating exceptions – are painted not only well but sympathetically; unfortunately, we also run into occasional moments where these two are characterised based on their gender – not by the cast, but by the author. The characters are almost all simply one-dimensional, uncompelling motivations for plot advancement.
That plot itself is, essentially, an equally Doylian contrivance. Talus begins with the arrival of its main pair at Creyak as the king’s dead body is found; the whole plot of the novel is Edwards’ drawn out homage to unfolding multiple-murder drama. If you’ve seen shows like Criminal Minds, Midsomer Murders, and so on, you’ll know how this works; the detectives slowly close in as the bodycount rises, until the action-filled denoument, with the detective grandstanding and declaring the truth and how he (it’s almost always, as in Talus, a he) worked out the events. Transplanting this into the prehistoric era should make it more interesting, but that Edwards completely fails to actually change societal dynamics or intercharacter reactions from their modern equivalents takes away even that superficial interest; it’s almost as if a modern community, albeit one with a specific set of animistic/ancestor-spirit beliefs, has been dropped into the past. That avoidance of psychological understanding really lets down the novel, unfortunately.
It is characteristic, however, of the worldbuilding of Talus; superficially there’s some great work put in on the construction of the prehistoric world, but this isn’t carried through to any depth. Belief in the spirits is referenced frequently but, in reality, only seems to affect Bran’s actions; this goes for an awful lot of the novel, which doesn’t seem to look into the consequences of prehistoric societies on their members, including things like the prevalence of diseases, the lack of effective medicine and more; indeed, Talus is almost completely unaffected, in most ways, by the lack of 21st century technology. It’s a bizarre piece of writing that even manages to include a British traveller going to, and returning from, not only Egypt, but also MesoAmerica; all this in a society that has barely advanced beyond dugouts in its naval technology.
In the end, whilst Talus and the Frozen King had great potential to prove both interesting and incisive, Edwards failed on both counts. A real shame.
DoI: This review was written based on a free review copy offered actively by Solaris, the publisher.