The Blood Tree: Paul Johnston, September 14—21, 2014
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
It seemed as good a week as any for a story about a murder in an independent Scotland.
In Paul Johnston’s The Blood Tree, Scotland’s cities have split into independent city states. In 2026, Edinburgh is an Orwellian totalitarian dictatorship run by the City Guards and remain fierce rivals of the democratic, and essentially Communist, Glasgow.
Quintilian ‘Quint’ Dalrymple is called upon to investigate a break-in at the former Scottish Parliament building, subsequent murders and abductions. He is supported by guardsman (policeman) Davie Humes and on-off lover Katharine.
The Blood Tree can be divided into three acts: the first set in Edinburgh; the second in Glasgow where Quint meets Helen ‘Hel’ Hyslop and Tam Haggs; and the third where the casts and settings collide. Each is probably a slight improvement on the one before.
There isn’t so much anything to dislike about it as simply not much to like. None of the characters have any depth to them, and they all speak in exactly the same way. In as many pages Quint, Davie and Karherine all say: “Cool it, Name.” There were also a number of word choices I’d question, such as repeated use of “whence” instead of “hence”.
The pace is slow with very little happening in the first act, a lengthy “What’s going on?/I’ll tell you later” fest in act two and a protracted denouement in act three that give a sluggish feel throughout. Johnston fails to build any tension.
The independent city state set up is interesting but underdeveloped. Edinburgh is ripped from the pages of 1984 with contrived links to 1990s events that are over explained as if the reader has no recent history knowledge. Glasgow’s stark difference is a good idea but it’s unrecognisable. I wanted to see the city I know well 12 years in the future (or 26 at time of publication) but it was alien, with a lazy reference to The Old Firm and not much else.
Despite the comments of other reviewers, comparisons to Rebus are unfounded. The Blood Tree shares nothing with it besides the Edinburgh setting but Johnston should have done more research. The likes of Rankin and MacBride work hard to bring realism to their books by fleshing out their settings. There was very little in The Blood Tree that could even be seen as distinctly Scottish.
The theme of genetic engineering runs through the book, and very subtle taps on power and corruption. These could have been explored in more detail but the actual plot was rather interesting. Unfortunately a lot of the meaty stuff was reserved for the last third and couldn’t be as closely examined as I would have liked. Many of the ethical questions had to be left unanswered or, in some cases, unasked.
The climax had far too much of villains bearing their souls and confessing their sins without much prompting, and many of the strands were tied up in a flourish.
Although there were interesting concepts, The Blood Tree underused many of its ideas. Weak characters you didn’t care about, slow pacing that tested your patience and a lack of tension throughout conspired to make this sadly underwhelming.