Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Dickensian to the hilt, if not quite as rich as a real Dickens novel, The Raven's Seal offers an indictment of eighteenth-century prisons, using them as a metaphor that gives the novel relevance to the present. The novel begins in the 1770s (near the same period as Dickens' historical novel A Tale of Two Cities) in the fictional English town of Airenchester, over which "Old Bellstrom Gaol" broods "like a black spider on a heap of spoils." The central characters are Thaddeus Grainger, a young gentleman who disdains the empty life of society balls and gambling in which his peers indulge, and Cassie Redruth, a proud slum girl of striking beauty and high moral fiber.
It's a few chapters in, after Grainger is unjustly sentenced for murder and imprisoned, when the story catches fire. Eighteenth-century prisons, "squalid, dangerous and foul," were not for the faint of heart. Every privilege, from candles and food to a cleaner cell and lighter or no chains, cost an exhorbitant fee to the gaolkeeper. Most prisoners in Bellstrom are allowed a surprising but historically authentic degree of mobility within its walls, making possible a brutal social order that echoes and infiltrates the larger order outside, with certain prisoners powerful enough to engage in criminal enterprises whose tentacles sprawl into the town.
Though The Raven's Seal takes the form of a mystery, it is really a novel about life in and around an eighteenth-century prison. Grainger's efforts, with Cassie's devoted assistance, to uncover the people and motives behind his downfall lead him gradually, over the course of years, to a deeper understanding of the interconnections between gaol, town and life itself. A fellow inmate, the "philosopher of the prison," tells him, "Your society is not the counterpart to the prison, but its perfection, where every act is seen, judged, approved, or disapproved directly, and the marvel is that outside the gaolhouse we persist in serving as our own turnkeys." (2012, 406 pages)More about The Raven's Seal at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository