November 14, 2012

Giveaway: The Raven's Seal by Andrei Baltakmens

We welcome Andrei Baltakmens to HF-Connection during his book tour of The Raven's Seal!

"The author's exquisite prose rushes along full of surprises, shadows, betrayal, and squalid situations where the high-born and criminals intermix. A superb mystery with vibrant characters." —Historical Novels Review
The Raven’s Seal: Nov. 1, $14.00 paperback, Top Five Books

A Murder. A Fall from Grace.
A Mysterious Symbol That Could Be the Key to His Salvation.

When the body of Thaddeus Grainger's rival turns up stabbed to death in an alley just hours after their inconclusive duel, only one suspect comes to mind. Charged with murder, Grainger's fate is sealed before his trial even begins. A young gentleman of means but of meaningless pursuits, Grainger is cast into the notorious Bellstrom Gaol, where he must quickly learn to survive in the filthy, ramshackle prison. The "Bells"—where debtors, gaolers, whores, thieves, and murderers all mix freely and where every privilege comes at a price—will be the young man's home for the rest of his life unless he can prove his innocence. But his friends, the journalist William Quillby and Cassie Redruth, the poor young girl who owes Grainger a debt of gratitude, refuse to abandon him. Before they can win his freedom, however, they must decode the meaning behind the crude wax seal that inspires terror in those who know its portent and contend with forces both inside and outside the prison determined to keep Grainger behind bars. Set against the urban backdrop of late 18th-century England, The Raven's Seal unravels a tale of corruption, betrayal, murder, and—ultimately—redemption and love.

Post by Andrei Baltakmens, author of  The Raven's Seal

Books take many strange paths to realization. The visual inspiration for my new novel, The Raven’s Seal, a historical mystery set in eighteenth-century England about a gentleman wrongly convicted of murder, was Piranesi’s extraordinary series of etchings, Carceri d'Invenzione (Prisons of the Imagination), but the idea of a nobleman unjustly imprisoned and forced to make his own escape was seeded by a reference I stumbled on to Casanova’s imprisonment in and escape from “The Leads,” the cells of the Doge’s palace. Later, I was intrigued by how Dickens encapsulated society in the Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison that dominates Little Dorrit.

I was drawn to attempt a Victorian mystery, but I had to understand my setting first. The prisons of the mid-Victorian period, I found, were places of regimentation and labor: bleak, cold, and miserably dull. The earlier eighteenth-century prisons were quite different. Modern readers might expect that prison would follow naturally from a guilty judgment, but the pre-modern prison was not a place of punishment but the place where most felons waited for punishment, be that whipping, branding, hanging, or transportation. These prisons were run for the profit of the gaol-keeper. Prisoners came and went quickly, as did visitors and gawkers. The prisons were disordered and dangerous, with their own contained society and economies, leaving plenty of scope for atmospheric encounters and intrigue. The eighteenth-century prison was ideal for the sort of many-threaded, entertaining mystery I wanted to explore.

Many of the more striking and unexpected details of the Bellstrom Gaol (my invented prison) came straight from my reading. For example, the prisoner held over because he could not pay his fees, or garnish, to the gaoler; the sale of alcohol in the yard as income for the prison-keeper; the practice of paying when the irons went on—and when they went off; the free mixing of felons, debtors, and even families; and the prisoners given leave to beg on the streets by day, all came from the sources.

These period details let readers step out of our world into another. But one of the pleasures of historical fiction is that this can also let us look back with a clearer eye. By the end of The Raven’s Seal, the chaos of the eighteenth-century prison begins to give way, in the 1780s, to the reforms that ultimately gave us the orderly prisons (constructed on Victorian models) we know today. The expansion of prisons and crime in the eighteenth century was fueled by the infamous Black Act, which greatly extended the scope of capital crimes and sent many to the gallows for slight offenses against property. Today, the U.S.A. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, driven by the untenable “War on Drugs” and punitive “three-strikes” laws. There are now private prisons in the U.S. where prisoners work for the profit of multinational corporations. The history of prisons and the injustices that shaped them may give us pause to reconsider the prisons of today.

Read the first chapter of The Raven's Seal on the publisher's website here.

One paperback of The Raven's Seal to one lucky reader in the USA!
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