Blood of the Oak is the fourth book in the Bone Rattler series by novelist Eliot Pattison. I haven’t read the first three, but the novels seem to be stand alone enough that you can read them out of order and still get by. The books are historical murder mysteries that cover the build up to the American Revolution through the eyes of protagonist Duncan McCallum. Duncan is an Edinburgh trained physician who came to America in the wake of the Battle of Culloden and the persecution of the Highland Clans. His unique skills and willingness to deal with dead bodies earns him the title of Death Speaker from the local Iroquois. It also helps him uncover different facets of mysteries since he is more able to determine cause of death than others. His keen intelligence and quest for truth have him look at things from multiple perspectives to discover exactly how someone died.
The trigger of the story is the theft of the sacred mask of Blood Dancer which leads to the exposure of a string of vicious murders. While I couldn’t find any historical reference to Blood Dancer, he seems similar to Coyote with a darker twist, a trickster God who doesn’t quibble about taking the lives of those who have wronged him.
Blood of the Oak, and the first three books, hit upon a time in history that is not often covered in novels. Many writers aim for the high drama eras of the Revolution itself, forgetting that prior to that was the equally dramatic French and Indian War. It is that point that Eliot’s Bone Rattler books begin, until we stumble into 1765 where Blood of the Oak starts. The three prior books span about 15 years or so in the the story timeline.
The benefit of reading the earlier books seems mostly to be relationship development between Duncan and other characters. So far as I can tell, several that feature quite prominently in the other books are not present for much of Blood of the Oak just due to the path the story takes. The main strength of the book is Eliot’s clear, impeccable writing style and with twelve other books under his belt and an esteemed political career prior to that, I would expect nothing less. The chapters are quite long compared to what I usually read and since I was reading this before bed I was often a little bleary eyed by the time I reached the end. There are also a lot of characters and it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who. A character listing for quick reference would have been exceptionally helpful since Duncan covers so much ground and interacts with so many different groups of people. I can’t speak as to accurate representation of indigenous groups since I’m not familiar with the Iroquois. The depictions of Conawago, Adanahoe and Tanaqua are of competent, intelligent individuals and the native people are held in high esteem by the protagonist.
So far as I can tell Eliot is not a trained historian, so I can’t speak for the accuracy of his books. It definitely seems like he’s done his research and has a clear passion for the topic. Adding in a healthy dose of imagination to the often sterile historical facts helps the story blossom. I’d have liked for there to be some clarification in the book notes that separates some fact from fiction, labelling what pieces portrayed as fact within the book is actual fiction in reality, such as the Kraken Club. Obviously it’s historical fiction so you have to take it with a grain of salt with the presentation of any fact, but it’s so easy to fall into the assumption that things are correct in regards to the customs, secret societies, etc. portrayed within historical fiction. I do like the concept of the “Judas Slaves” he develops, which are essentially political prisoners forced into slavery to keep them out of the way. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it would have been an expedient method of dealing with people those in power wanted to disappear without outright killing them.
There are some parts of the story that dragged a little, but the final chapters picked up the pace nicely and culminated in a satisfactory ending. I really enjoy the character of Sarah Ramsey and wish that she had been more present in this book. She is the one who owns Duncan’s indenture and also serves as his love interest. She is a fiercely independent and intelligent woman who shows up only briefly in this book, but is always spectacular when she does.
Overall the book was well crafted and an interesting take on the build up to the American Revolution.
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