Sparrowhawk is the story of Captain John Sparrowhawk, one of the British Empire’s finest soldiers who is languishing in a debtor’s jail. He is offered a reprieve and chance of redemption in the form of the beautiful yet enigmatic Miss Evangeline. His task is simple; he must guard the occupants of a nearby house against intruders during the month of December. Almost immediately upon his release, John Sparrowhawk realises that this is no simple sentry duty.
Paul Finch, author of the recent Spectral Press chapbook King Death, has previously demonstrated a fantastic grasp of the historical in his work and this is certainly on display here. Set against the brutal winter of 1843, Finch takes his readers on a tour of Victorian London, noting the squalor, tradition and frivolity of a Victorian Christmas with genuine authenticity. The research and care that has been put into the description and period detail of each setting is a joy to read. Finch is clearly passionate about his setting and this passion shines through in his prose.
The central character Captain Sparrowhawk is charismatic and brave yet a tragically broken soul. The juxtaposition in his personality brings moments of incredible tenderness followed almost immediately by acts of extreme violence. The harrowing story of his time in Afghanistan coupled with his interesting personal life make Sparrowhawk a sympathetic figure, yet one that is difficult to warm to at times.
The story itself has a number of fantastic set pieces ranging from a garish Victorian feast to a shoot out in a grotty district of London that shows John Sparrowhawk at his brutal and menacing best. Sparrowhawk’s experiences in Afghanistan weigh heavily on his shoulders, clearly shaping his actions and impulses in the book’s well written fight scenes. The parallels that Finch draws between the Victorian conflict in Afghanistan and the current one are a poignant nod to the reader.
One of the principal triumphs of Sparrowhawk is how the story captures the sense of Christmas. The images of deep snow drifts and produce on display in the markets are brilliantly festive, yet Finch still manages to create a sense of terror that holds true to the Victorian spirit of the Christmas ghost story. The scares in the book are sharp and perfectly accentuate a measured and believably atmosphere of dread.
Sparrowhawk is a short, tense and occasionally tender story that has a surprising yet welcome twist in the tale. The lead character is complex and layered, adding an extra layer of intrigue to a mysterious storyline. Paul Finch has proved himself to be the master of the historical horror story and this is no exception. Sparrowhawk makes perfect horror reading for the holiday period and is bound to live with the reader long after the decorations have come down.
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