Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mark of the Lion [Review]

Title: Mark of the Lion

Suzanne Arruda (official web site)

Copyright: 2006, New American Library, New York (Paperback, ISBN: 0451219589)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 338 pages

Summary: Jade del Cameron, a female ambulance driver in World War I, promises her beloved, as he dies in her arms, that she will find the brother she didn't know he had. The quest takes her first to London and then to British East Africa where she rapidly becomes involved with multiple murders. Del Cameron is not untouched by her experiences in the trenches of the war, but as the daughter of a rancher in the American Southwest, she is also competent in the outdoors as well as an excellent shot and well-suited to the hardships of life in Nairobi. The first two thirds of the book are a slow buildup but the safari in the final third provides the real adventure and color.

The writing itself is fairly standard in terms of style and I didn't pick up on any particular themes or intent by the author to draw parallels of any special sort. Perhaps some level of recognition of the racism of the period and place, as Jade herself is considered to be of mixed heritage.

Extract: Hours later a high pitched shriek of terror roused the camp. Jade jumped up with the instantaneous readiness that came from long experience , heightened by her dream. She snatched up her rifle and undid the tent flap, leaving Madeleine to turn up the lantern. Then she raced towards the screams, oblivious to the ache in her left knee. Avery emerged bare chested, pulling the suspenders over his shoulders as Jade ran past his tent. Excited voices, some nearly hysterical, guided her to the porters' quarters where men waved blazing firebrands in the pitch blackness.

Also Relevant: I must admit that I am torn by this novel. While not the author's first published title (she has extensive experience in writing for children), it is her first adult novel and her first mystery. Naturally, as a debut novel in a series, the author spends time introducing us to the characters who may people future novels in the series. The pacing of the tale didn't bother me so much as the witchcraft element (or what others have called the paranormal aspects of the book). Arruda explains in an afterword that the premise of the book is based somewhat on a short story by Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, but that's hardly justification. In the same afterword, she confesses that Jade is an amalgam of Beryl Markham and Osa Johnson, both female adventurers of the period. The chief triangle of tension in the book exists between Jade, the witch and a dashing older man who pursues Jade romantically. (Don't worry -- that romance is played very low key in the book).

I did like its unexpectedness in terms of plot and I did like the character of Jade. But reading the novel was very similar to watching an old Hollywood flick about Africa -- something vaguely like Mogambo or King Solomon's Mines. I wouldn't object to reading other installments in the series (at present, Stalking Ivory and The Serpent's Daughter). I just hope the other installments avoid the kind of 'woo-woo' aspect.