The 13th Witch – A Conrad Clarke Novel by Mark Hayden – a fantasy novel set in hard reality

A thriller with fantasy elements, a mystery with a magical twist; this book is all these things and more. This is the first tale in a series where an established hero from another setting discovers that he is capable of more than courageous cunning, even if that has kept him alive so far. It is quite a cheeky book, as it gently overlaps with a certain series where a boy discovers his magical abilities, and sets out the adult realities, responsibilities and dangers of a hidden world. Dramatic events, working out of clues and deciding on strategies sit alongside some wonderfully accurate pictures of people living in our own society in all their bewilderment, sympathies and abilities. I enjoyed this novel immensely, as it works up to a climax where courage, luck and humanity are tested. I was very grateful to be offered a copy to review as part of a blog tour.

Conrad Clarke, battered ex RAF officer and more recently involved in shady dealings, returns to the family home for Christmas. His parents greet him, confused by his latest injuries, and keen to hear more of his romantic life. I particularly enjoyed the portrait of his mother, retired code breaker and struggling cook. As his father tries to find out more, and the pub with a family interest beckons, Conrad encounters a mysterious figure with supernatural powers and the offer of work. As Conrad discovers more by working out how to contact the next layer of a complicated system, and deal with the keeper of the way, the encounters are frequently funny in some ways, and always fascinating. Hannah, senior officer and damaged person was a character I wanted to find out more about, and while the hero is male, he cannot function without the strong women he encounters as he lies, speculates and generally tries to work out what is going on. Some of the techniques and resources he calls on are remarkable, yet all are based on solid everyday life. His relationship with Mina is also fascinating, and I look forward to finding out where that narrative strand takes her and Conrad.

There are many entertaining strands to this story and a terrific amount of clever plotting and thought which transforms this from a fantasy into a solidly grounded contemporary novel, while maintaining the magical elements. The descriptions are so well written that I could visualise the settings and equipment used, especially as Conrad visits the London sites. I found Conrad to be a fascinating character as he methodically goes through his next steps, but has to mix in spontaneous elements to survive. I found the details extremely interesting, such as the small carvings of one of the types of beings that Conrad encounters and how he deals with a giant creature. The women who help him are varied and far from mere back up characters; I enjoyed the snapshots of village life which thread throughout the book. It all adds up to be a really readable novel which kept me turning the pages and I would be really interested to read what happens next to Conrad, Mina and how he experiences “The King’s Watch”.

We have just returned from our post Christmas break in sunny, snowy and chilly Northumberland, where I think that we experienced every sort of weather within a seven day period! Still, it was a very cozy cottage and we really enjoyed seeing friends so all was well. I struggled a little with the internet, but everything was posted in a timely way (just!) so now just a pile of books to work through… watch this space ….as ever!