Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Kewin, Eye Collectors (2020)

Simon Kewin, The Eye Collectors (a story of her Majesty’s Office of the Witchfinder General, protecting the public from the unnatural since 1645). Elsewhen Press, 2020. Pp. 288. ISBN 978-1-91140-964-9. £10.00 pb/£2.99 e.

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The “Magic Police” is a firmly-established sub-genre by now, but Danesh Shazan of Her Majesty’s Office of the Witchfinder General is an interesting addition to their ranks. Most people think that the “office” is a historical anomaly, “a ridiculous piece of quasi-mediaeval pagentry, like so much of the British governmental and judicial systems,” but in fact it exists to protect the public from unutterable and eldritch powers from Beyond. Danesh, a recently-recruited Acolyte in the Welsh branch of the office, headed by the terrifying Campbell Hardknott-Lewis, works with mundane cops on cases which have a flavour of the supernatural about them. And when he’s called in by D.I. Nikola Zubrasky to investigate a murder in Cardiff, this “flavour” is worth at least three Michelin Stars.

The victim has been placed inside a runic circle, eyes neatly removed. Is this the result of a dispute between factions of one or more obscure Occult orders or, more worryingly, are there individuals among the Witchfinders—always in a state of tension between the need to stamp out magic and the necessity of using magic in their work—who have gone rogue? Or, what is even more worrying to Danesh, is there a connection with his own family; the deaths of his twin brother and his grandfather, and the curse which seems to have been laid upon his mother? Pretty soon, as another murder is committed and another set of eyes “collected”, there seems no-one at all whom Danesh can trust

Simon Kewin sets out the background to all this with a lot of skill. When we read “magic”, we are reminded of contemporary far-right extremist agitation. (In fact, we are clearly meant to think this, when one of the groups in question is called “English Wizardry,” and we are treated to a potted history of such groups’ connections with Mosley’s fascism in the 1930s.) But very much at the heart of the story is what is the moral problem for all law enforcement and security agencies—how far you let your hands get dirty when faced with enemies who have no moral qualms at all about the state of their own hands? There’s a strong back-story to the “Office” which Danesh shares with us at various points through the story, and some strong characters, such as the Librarian of the Welsh Office, the knife-wielding Lady Coldwater, to whom you would really not want to return a book a day overdue with dog-eared pages. (For some reason, she reminds me of at least one of my ex-bosses…) Once the second murder is committed, Danesh and the reader learn more about his world’s history and the magical background, and there is some fascinating world-building here. Thanks to an Assay—a kind of magical autopsy in which a “user” (the extremely unpleasant Gilroy, kept alive so that his powers can make some fleeting contact with the corpse to get some idea of the circumstances in which they died—Danesh gets some idea about what is going on, and it seems to take him back into some of his family’s own tangled past. We do, eventually learn why the victims’ eyes have been removed, but this leads us to another set of complications and the threat of even more murders. There is certainly suspense. Nor does Kewin neglect another essential aspect of this genre—there is a fair bit of hardboiled humour going on, particularly in the portrayal of the internal politics of the “Office.

At some point, it has to be said, the back-story rather overtakes the surface plot, and the personal concerns of Danesh—particularly his relationship with Zubrasky, mirroring the dynamic of is-she-rival-or-buddy-or-something-more which almost never fails to give a copfic drama a touch of tension—sometimes fall away, but this is clearly a book which is meant to be the first of a series, and we should therefore hope for everything to be picked up in further installments. Certainly the book ends with the promise that Danesh has got himself into some tricky waters to be navigated when we next meet him. At the moment, the moral issue seems a bit too easily sketched out. Magic-using (Magery), for most of the book at least, seems to be automatically suspect, and we never come across any “good” magical manifestations. Magic-using can be appropriate, perhaps—but can it be good? And, because Magic and magery are so much part of the story from the beginning, we never really see anything from the point of view of the mundane world. Zubrasky is rather underplayed here. We are told that the Office of the Witchfinder General is a secretive body, more mocked than understood by people who become aware of its existence; but we don’t really see the world much through the eyes of most of those who inhabit it, who are safely protected and sheltered.

Danesh himself (who barely knows much of what is going on, even by the end of the book) is an interesting viewpoint character, whose background (half-Indian, half-English, still coming to terms with the differences between England and Wales) both add to the richness of the story and reflect much that is going on within its major themes of cultural conflict. He clearly has more to give us in this respect, and it would be interesting to see more of this world and how he resolves his problems.

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