The Wisdom Of Dead Men

By Oisin McGann

The Wisdom of Dead Men by Oisin McGann
Berto is Duke of Leinster, Patriarch of the Wildenstern clan and thanks to business interests that stretch across Europe and into Asia, Africa and the America's, he is one of the richest men in the Empire. But you don't get to be a family as rich and powerful as the Wildenstern's without a ruthless streak under the surface, and so it is that, to move up the family and business hierarchy and gain control of the wealth, it has become quite usual to assassinate whoever stands in your way - known as the 'Rules of Ascension' - thus the most dangerous people around you are very likely to be your family. But Berto wants to change things. With so much money to go around he is determined that he can bring reform to his less-than-loving family but, unsurprisingly, he faces some pretty stiff opposition.

After a series of women suffer utterly bizarre deaths by spontaneous combustion it becomes apparent to Berto's brother, Nate, his wife, Daisy, and sister, Tatiana that the murders are somehow connected to the Wildenstern family business and they decide to investigate. It's not long before they are led to the local asylum - a place the family donates substantial sums to - and turn up secrets that the family would rather were kept hidden. But this leaves Berto in an awkward position. The doctor who runs the asylum is also head of a secret society that can provide revolutionary surgery that will give Berto back his legs, getting him out of the wheelchair to which he is confined, but Berto's vow to change the sinister practices of the Wildenstern family means exposing the doctor and his accomplices while trying to avoid being bumped off by his relatives.

While The Wisdom Of Dead Men is a follow-on book from Ancient Appetites it is not a direct sequel, so while it might pay to have read the one before the other, it is perfectly possible to enjoy this as a standalone novel. And enjoy it you will. Set in a Steampunk enhanced Victorian-era Dublin where various business empires, controlled by the richest of families - the Rockefeller's, the Vanderbilt's, the Rothschild's - have taken the place of the British Empire, and strange half-organic, half-machine creatures known as Engimals, that come in all shapes and sizes, are used as everything from dock labour to personal transport (although no-one quite knows their origins) this delightful mix of history and fantasy is the perfect setting for the murder, mystery and mayhem to come.

Oisin McGann has a gift for story. His books are marketed as young adult novels but the reality is that they can be read and enjoyed by folk of all ages and it's easy to see why. They're rich, dark and complex, often dealing with unpleasant subject matter and yet he keeps things simple and easy to understand. He reveals lush detail as he builds a fascinating world for his characters to inhabit but never gets bogged down in self-indulgent minutiae and his characters, even the bit-part players, are always fully rounded and believable. Like all good fantasy and science-fiction it's the parallels with the modern day that make this interesting and, as usual, McGann asks big questions of his readers, opening up debates about race and class, about sexuality and social freedoms, about the costs of scientific and technological progress, and he does it seemlessly, without polemic, without taking any moral high ground or pre-judging which is is rare in most writing but for a writer pidgeon-holed into YA it's brave and bold and glorious to read.

But let's not forget that at its heart this is a murder mystery and a damned fine one at that, full of action and intrigue and rocketing along a decent clip, pausing just long enough so you can catch your breath before it's off on the next adventure. The plot weaves more than enough twisted strands together to keep you guessing right up to the giant twist of an ending and it opens things up for the next book to go in practically any direction it wants, not just as a trilogy but as an ongoing series charting the Wildenstern line, which I for one would welcome.

All-in-all it's a real page-turner, a terrific mystery yarn brim-full of eccentric characters, gruesome murders, bizarre technology, assassinations and animal/machine hybrids all wrapped in a marvelous steampunk package and I would recommend it whole-heartedly to all readers, regardless of age.

The Wisdom Of Dead Men is published by Random House and is available from, Blackwell and all good book stores.

Wouldn't you know it, Oisin McGann has a website.

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