We begin with a graveyard at midnight. The stars are out and yew trees sway ominously in the autumn breeze. Hand of Silver, Hand of Gold has been billed as a historical fantasy thriller, and I am curious to see how award-winning author Christopher Grey will navigate a genre so pitted with clichés, especially with an opening that situates it so firmly in this genre.
We soon learn that our first-person narrator is in fact drunk, and my concerns about a tired genre melt away. It is clear that Grey can, and will, do something new with his inherited material, and he does this through brilliant characterisation, a flair for description and artful handling of some complex themes. I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and that it was an exciting ride from start to finish!
Our protagonist Orlando Novi is immediately gripping. I love his short and pointed questions to the reader, his conversational, sarcastic tone. His dry comments drive the plot forward, adding light touches of occasional banter to offset some of the darkness: it soon becomes clear that black humour is his forte.
One thing that did strike me was how his dialogue had the tendency to verge on being slightly over-dramatic and forced – is this a hint of Hamlet, “no spirit, no spectre, no father?”, or a glimpse of a stereotypically patriarchal ‘Renaissance’ society, “Lord, do not let me weep, it is unmanly”? But even as it teeters, Grey on the most part manages to pull it back. The prose is engaging, the characters gripping, and one can see how the slight theatrical tendency of Orlando’s narration perhaps feeds into an element of his character, rather than being over enthusiasm on the part of the author.
This aside, it cannot be denied that Grey presents us with an image of a bustling world, of guilds and domestic arguments and poverty juxtaposed with aristocrats, dark magic and lots of trips to the tavern. The background is that of a society on the brink of turning from Latin to the vernacular, and the image of Orlando caught up in this change as he struggles to read books by candlelight, perfectly places the novel in the historical moment it is trying to capture.
As well as the fast-paced prose and the impressive characterisation, I would say that Grey’s choice of setting is one of the highlights of the novel. Through depictions of frescoes, dusty churches and ornamental carvings of angels, Grey makes full use of his Italian Renaissance backdrop by drawing on its richness in his descriptions. At the same time, the novel has pockets of darkness which mirror that of its setting in 1493, where new learning flourishes alongside superstition and violence is never far from the surface. This is seen in the magic, very much real, which jostles with Christianity, itself put under strain by a strand of discussion that deals with sadistic priests, corruption and some quite unsettling scenes.
The Renaissance was a time of new knowledge, rebirth and discovery. I would say that Grey successfully applies this to his novel. Working in a genre that has lots of clichés, Grey manages to keep things fresh with witty dialogue, a web of secrets that is truly mesmerising, a taut plot and a focus on family relationships (their issues and solutions) that resonates throughout the book. Grey’s world building is a wonder to behold.