This is the first book I've read by S. Andrew Swann, author of over a dozen novels in the fantasy, sf and general fiction genres, but it certainly won't be the last for me. I devoured ‘Marked’ pretty much in one go. I think I napped partway through but I dived straight back into it when I woke up. I wanted to know where it was going and didn't want to stop until it got there.
It's one of those odd novels that's at once exactly what it claims to be but also something else entirely and I know that I need to explain that.
The back cover blurb makes it seem like an urban fantasy, which it kind of is. We're in Cleveland where Dana Rohan is a second generation cop with a secret. She has a mark on her back that looks like a tattoo but which has stayed vivid and grown with her since she was young. For instance, it was there when she was discovered as a six-year-old feral child by the policeman who became her adoptive father. What she never told him or anyone, though, is that the mark is the means by which she can hop into alternate pasts and futures, a talent she now uses to catch crooks.
We see this talent in action at the beginning of the book. An unknown man has shot the proprietor of a tattoo studio dead in what may be a routine robbery gone wrong. Her partner, Jacob Hightower, being human, has to do his policework the old-fashioned way, asking the right questions, making the right deductions and following the right leads. Dana, however, can merely find a quiet moment, step sideways into a parallel timeline and back a few hours to intercept the killer before he commits the same crime in that universe, then conjure up a pretext to stop him and look at his wallet to see who he is. A hop back to her own universe and she's half broken the case already.
What I have to point out here is that the novel (and inevitable TV series) that you've probably conjured up in your mind really isn't what ‘Marked’ is. Sure, the mark of the title is crucially important and its powers even more so, but we're not going to be solving crime in Cleveland for long. Swann has an interesting habit of letting us settle into what we think his book will be and then whisking the ground out from under us so that we fall into something else entirely.
Case in point: 45 pages in, as we wait for Dana to explain to Jacob what she is and what she can do, what seems to be a homeless man ranting in a foreign language which she can inexplicably understand, appears out of nowhere to give her a warning before being murdered by a stranger in steam-powered armour who vanishes into thin air. No, we're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
Swann sets these changes up gloriously. This unknown man's words are, in Old English, "Wealcan has fallen! They'll come for you! The shadows are coming!" Of course, Dana has as much idea what Wealcan is and what these shadows are as we do, which is to say none at all, but we'll learn as we go just like she does.
If the changes are good, Swann's escalations are better. This really goes to unexpected places and, given what some of them are, I can't really talk about them because spoilers are easy here. Just telling you that this doesn't stay as what it starts out could be considered a spoiler already, but I think that one needs to be told. The rest you'll want to find out for yourself.
Let's just say that Dana's talent allows her to do a lot more than she's been doing thus far and alternate universes or timelines or whatever the heck they are in this book allow for rather a lot of possibility. Driving her Charger through the Chaos that exists between universes, we get a glimpse at what might be out there. One minute she and her travelling companions are in an oddly dystopian 1950s and the next there are confederate biplanes bombing their rural gas station in 1919. Where they end up, I won't tell you, but it's wilder than either of those fleeting moments and there's depth to all this too.
It's actually acutely annoying that I can't talk about most of what happens in this book because clearly I want to. I want to tell you who Dana meets and where. I'm especially keen to explain what she learns about the Mark and what it means. I want to introduce you to some of the people who end up on her side (and those who aren't on her side). I really want to pass on the discoveries she makes about her own heritage. There's so much in this novel to talk about and almost all of it would constitute spoilers, so I'm going to shut up now.
What I will say is that it keeps reinventing itself, it keeps on escalating as we and Dana both struggle to take stock and it has a vibrancy to it that makes it a very short 329-page novel. It's clearly the first book in a series because it wraps up in such a way that we can't fail to realise that we're looking at both an ending and a beginning. I'm certainly eagerly awaiting book two and I'm frankly fascinated to see how it's going to be presented. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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