Fiction Reviews

The Ninth Circle

(2008) Alex Bell, Gollancz, 18.99, hdbk, 304pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8026-3

Gabriel Antaeus regains consciousness on the floor of a flat in Budapest. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. But someone wants him to know. Someone who sends him clues contained in packages shipped from around the world, who slips notes under the door at night. But as his past is slowly revealed he discovers that he is alone in the world, with no living relatives, and it seems that recently he has lost a wife and child. In the depths of his loneliness he is very receptive to the friendly overtures of Zadkiel Stephomi, who seems to be a kindred soul, except over time Stephomi becomes as frightening a figure as the unknown clue-sender. In addition Gabriel keeps having visions of a burning man who haunts his dreams and is occasionally glimpsed in mirrors. The further Gabriel is drawn into his past, the more layers of falsehood are swept away, and the truth could be more terrifying than he can stand. For it seems that there is a war going on, conducted over millennia by demons and angels, with humankind not much more than innocent bystanders. Furthermore, it seems that Gabriel's next door neighbour, who claims that her unborn child has no father, might be about to give birth to either the Anti-Christ or a new Messiah. Can Gabriel piece together all the clues as to his own identity and get a grip on his own life in time to help his neighbour out with her problems? And whose side is Zadkiel really on? And who is the burning man in the mirror? Gabriel is being led to a choice he does not wish to make, but his decision could have horrific repercussions for everyone in the world, no matter which way he decides.

This is a very readable debut novel, though part of its appeal lies in the 'format' of a story being told through a succession of journal entries. And the old amnesiac main protagonist is a standard trope that crops up again and again. Indeed, the publicity for this volume states that this is "Neil Gaiman meets The Bourne Identity", though it has to be said that, promising though this debut is, Bell has got a long way to go before being in the same league as Neil Gaiman. There's a lot to like about this novel but, equally, there are some disappointing, almost lazy qualities about it - having an amnesiac protagonist with a pile of cash, a facility with languages, and uncanny abilities of self-defense seems like a shorthand character because Bell was unable (or unwilling) to come up with anything more inventive. Indeed, many of the characters in this book seem curiously two-dimensional, though that may be because of, firstly, the viewpoint problem and, secondly, the brevity of the book. None of which necessarily bodes ill for the future... A first novel is a first novel, and the best that can be hoped for is some indication that further volumes might be engaging. In this case that has certainly been done and it will be worth keeping an eye on Bell.

Tony Chester

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