Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Geoff Nelder
Solstice Publishing – Solstice Shadows Imprint
July 23, 2017, Print Length: 360 pages, Source ISBN: 1625266227
Geoff Nelder is one of those writers who seems to be able to work across multiple genres seamlessly. There’s always an element of action, a hint of steamy romance, and his trademark twist. In his latest novel, Xaghra’s Revenge, the twist is a mixture of history, science, horror and fantasy. The research that underlies this novel is obviously impeccable. The narrative is built on the true story of Turkish pirate Rais Dragut, a brutal and deranged man who, in 1551, captured the entire population of Gozo, one of the Maltese islands, and sold whoever survived the terrible journey into slavery in Northern Africa. Coupled with the historical story, which Nelder peoples with fictional characters partly based on his research including the use of real names, real towns and artefacts, and real situations, is a modern day story of a young couple Reece and Zita, both of whom have ancestors that trace a line back to Dragut. This duel timeline, told in alternate chapters, is perfectly matched and presents a complex and yet engaging and very accessible read.
The bringing together of these disparate stories into a single narrative is part of Nelder’s magic. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern is not only seamless, but rather funny as in this excerpt where ghosts from the past animate an opera house in which Cosi Fan Tutti is being performed:
Through the roaring like a grizzly bear in pain, a chorus of human wailing could be heard. He glanced at the stage. Incongruously the two women were accompanied by two tenors wearing masks and they appeared to be merrily singing arias. The wailing came from those agitated chairs at the rear, apparently occupied by tormented souls. It was as if the operatic chorus had been transported to the rear seats and changed from bright Mozart to noir Wagner. (42)
Nelder’s depiction of the Maltese Islands in the 1500s is richly detailed, enlivened by Nelder’s own travels around Gozo, and deep research that really brings both the history and the settings to life for the reader with food, smells, sound and image. There is a verisimilitude in the costumes – turbans, sashes, pantaloons – the depictions of the pirates ship, the ocean waves, the Akdhar mountains, the blue sky and clouds, and the ruins and temples that are brought to life. The characters too are well drawn, with a complexity, even in the evilest characters like Dragut presenting vulnerabilities and subtleties that keep the reader engaged. Though the fighting can sometimes be brutal, Nelder gets comic relief and a fair amount of titillation from the growing romance between Zita and Reece,and their mismatched cultural interests, levels of sophistications and their ghosts, which somehow never seem to stretch the bounds of incredulity. There are clear parallels between Stjepan and Lidia, the ancient husband and wife and Zita and Reece and the emotional connections across time and space draw the reader in. The weaving in of cultural influences, especially classical music and the ever-present Baudelaire, with family dynamics, a series of mysteries, and the growing love affair between the main characters creates a very energetic, exciting and dynamic read that is engaging and fascinating.