Sparrowhawk by Paul Finch
Reviewed by Geoff Nelder
Pendragon Press 2010
Reviewed the Kindle version via Brentwood Press 2011
The paradox of conflicts between what you see and know.
Once freed from a vile debtor’s prison Captain Sparrowhawk of the 16th Light Dragoons had to pay for his freedom with a strange guarding mission. Four aspects of Paul Finch’s novella drew me in: authenticity of geography and history; the exquisite writing style; personal coincidences; and most of all the grim storyline fascination of apparitional ghouls from the past, and the satisfaction of finally solving the puzzle.
1843 was an interesting time in England for social contrasts and political awakening. Add this to one of the coldest winters on record and we have terrific conflict and tension. As a climatologist I know about that winter, so I was mightily impressed by the research Finch did to make the narrative real. Same with other details. He refers to toppers. My granddad was nicknamed Topper because he regularly wore one at the weekends and as a joke in the pub even though he had risen no further than master plasterer as an artisan. Later in the story, our hero was battling suicidal odds in Afghanistan (so topical). My other granddad was wounded there during the third Anglo-Afghan war in the 1920s. How did Finch know my family connections so well – hah.
Sparrowhawk is paid and instructed by the enigmatic and beautiful Mss Evangeline, who knows an uncomfortable amount of information about him. She is the key to the puzzle in this story and turns the lock iteratively with each chapter. Clever.
Also smart is the writing. Just listen to this description of Angus. ‘Here, an attendant was waiting, a big, raw-boned fellow with thick, red whispers and braces over his linen undershirt. The tattoos on his brawny arms indicated a military background. When he spoke, it was with a Highlands accent.’ You are there with Sparrowhawk. Not only is there superb Show (as writers and editors urge on their writers) but the language is of the 1840s. We have costermongers –street sellers, ‘haranguing the public from their barrows, selling everything from eel soup to pigs’ trotters, from lemonade to kitchen grease, from frogs, lizards and snails to rare and exotic birds, most of which would be sparrows and finches done up with colourful paint.’ Finch’s research is beautifully revealed in words such as that lovely harridan and breveted, right down to knowing popular tunes of the day as constables would whistle In Dulci Jubilo on their beat. Trust Finch to be aware, unlike Hollywood directors that you don’t fire guns from the same place twice. I think Paul Finch must have been in the SAS, and have a time machine.
Sparrowhawk questions the veracity of what he experiences, but his brought-to-life father denies him a right to question it and to face the existing reality. Interesting philosophical stance, but it is whimsical and the probable hallucination vanishes, yet stays as a torment.
Some readers may feel that some of the narrative detail is infodump eg about the Peterloo massacre of 1819 but it is well done, and relevant to the plot. It is forgiven when a man-lion creature is described inside the terror, as having eyes that are ‘pits of molten gold’ – I wish I’d written that.