The novel begins with an “Animadversion to the Reader”, in which the fictitious J. Wellesley Gunn, Professor of Mediaeval Antiquities in the University of London, explains that the manuscript that follows is a work of fiction by journalists of his acquaintance, Mr Rimmer and Mr Mark, based on the Professor’s own researches in the archives of mediaeval Bohemia. Gunn’s researches uncovered, he states, the suggestion of “a hitherto unknown strand in the Prague Plot of 1394”. He has been unable to verify his conjecture, however, which is why he passed the information to his journalists friends, who turned it into the fiction that follows.
Mr Rimmer and Mr Mark, of course, were the central characters of McLaren’s first novel, Rattus Rex, and this device thus offers a link between the two novels, despite them being set almost 500 years apart. There is, in truth, a further link, because the two central characters of Crows in a Winter Landscape, the charlatan Kreuss and the young trainee doctor Alan, are clearly further iterations of the same Rimmer and Mark characters, playing out broadly similar adventures.
The setting for this ambitious novel is the Holy Roman Empire. Life is brutal and dangerous. As the novel begins, our two heroes narrowly avoid execution by a gang of mercenary soldiers called the Crows who are in the employ of the king of Bohemia for the purpose of quelling a rebellion. It is the cunning of Kreuss that saves the day, when he manages to negotiate a reprieve by dint of promising to uncover, in the archives of the town recently overtaken by the mercenaries, Milovice, evidence which would lead the mercenaries to the doors of traitors and creditors who are bankrolling the rebellion against the king.
Set to peruse the archives, Kreuss and Alan do, indeed, find the evidence they suggested they would and this sets in train a series of events which unfolds rapidly and with bloodthirsty relish. Kreuss and Alan team up with the Crows, and they are sent to Divohora where, it is suspected, illegal silver mining is being undertaken in order to raise sums of money for the rebellion. They arrive in a town which is catastrophically afflicted, with most of the citizens dead and those who remain blinded and dying. A web of intrigue is uncovered, putting the Crows and Kreuss and Alan in grievous danger.
As I said, there are similarities with the plotting style of McLaren’s first novel, Rattus Rex, although, of course, the two stories are very different. They do remain resolutely boys’ fiction: in Rattus Rex there was only one strong female character; in Crows in a Winter Landscape there are two. All the same, they are well written and entertaining novels, with rich and intriguing settings and highly imaginative set piece adventures.