I discovered Phil Rickman quite by accident, coming across one of his older horror novels in the library. I was immediately engaged by his wonderful characterization, and I read all the books related to Avalon at first, even the young adult novels, then finally found this series. I love these books: they are intelligently written, with well-drawn characters that reoccur over the series, and the mysteries are compelling--a wonderful mix of supernatural touches with murder mystery. Over the course of the series, the characters have become like old friends, and I was only reluctant to start this one because I knew I'd then have to wait to hear more about the adventures of Merrily and Company.
So about this book specifically: it picks up rather quickly after the last book, The Secrets of Pain. Frannie Bliss is still getting over his injuries, but is a big presence in this book. Lol is touring, so is not much present in this book, except for an intriguing early phone call in which he mentions the M word....one that I hope will be taken up in a future novel! The lovely Jane, Merrily's wonderful and sometimes enfuriating pagan daughter, is also off for the summer, so Merrily is on her own. Even Gomer Parry, Plant Hire, is only a minimal presence in this book, and I know when I read early reviews and saw this, I thought I'd be disappointed in all those favorite characters missing, but I was not in the least, because the story was compelling and well told (and as always, a fascinating mix of fiction and history!)
Plus, plenty of other characters from other novels appear to keep Merrily busy. There's Athena who, as usual, is a reluctant source of magical information. And the Thorogoods, from an earlier novel, (The Crown of Lights, which was a novel I enjoyed) reappear, and I was delighted to see them. It's something Rickman does exceptionally well--bringing back characters from earlier novels, and I was glad to see these two again. This is tied to my only real quibble with the book, which is the ways in which magical practices are occasionally portrayed: Betty Thorogood seems to regret the tiny bit of magical work she still does, and I found her total rejection of pagan practices a bit too heavyhanded. While Rickman does a good job of writing about the "dark side" of ceremonial magic and in this book chaos magic, and I understand that needs to be done to keep the plot moving along, I do wish it wasn't all tarred with such a brush--as a certain barrister tells us in this novel, the practice of magic is not always sinister. I do think the books as a whole and series as a whole are leaning more that way, thankfully, but every now and then, details grate.
Overall, this is one of my favorite books in the series, even if I did miss some of my favorite characters (and even including my minor quibbles noted). I hope Mr. Rickman continues with the series, as I want to see what happens with Merrily and Lol, and I'm intrigued by Frannie Bliss' unorthodox relationship, and wonder how that will turn out. As you can see, I read these books as much for the lives of the characters as the mysteries, and I think that is a tribute to the author's talent.
For those who have not read the series before, who love character-driven mysteries and have a tolerance for a touch of the supernatural, I highly recommend these books. I think fans of Elizabeth George may like this series, for example, though I think these books are better written with better developed characters. This is a wonderful series, and I'm delighted the author is so prolific!