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The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575080270
Date: 17 April 2008 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

A début novel due from Gollancz in April, and this one looks very interesting indeed. The Ninth Circle by newcomer Alex Bell is being described as "The Bourne Identity ... as if Neil Gaiman had written it" and I defy you not to be intrigued by that!

"A man comes round on the floor of a shabby flat in the middle of Budapest. His head is glued to the floorboards with his own blood. There's a fortune in cash on the kitchen table. And he has no idea where, or who, he is."

A man awakens in a musty Budapest apartment. Blood from a wound to his head is congealing around him and a large bag of money in loose bills lies on a table nearby. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. Thus opens the début novel from new Gollancz author Alex Bell, a work described by the publisher as "The Bourne Identity ... as if Neil Gaiman had written it". I'm rather jealous of this sound bite (I wish I'd thought of it!) as it is a perfect encapsulation of Bell's novel, the central conceit of which is a familiar one seen not only in Ludlum's best-seller but also in the graphic novel XIII and to some extent in Christopher Nolan's 2000 movie Memento.

The notion of a central character not having a clue about what is going on seems to create a peculiar bond between the reader and the protagonist, a feeling that we're all in this together. Discoveries and revelations are secrets we're all let in on at the same time and so their effects somehow seem more personal, more direct than in a standard third-person narrative. Such stories are also, of course, a bloody nightmare for reviewers, given that every piece of information the author offers is a clue to the central mystery and therefore any appraisal can be a real spoiler-filled minefield. So, I'll be extra careful from this point on.

The hint that there are Gaimanesque elements to this novel is helpful, as it offers a sense of context without letting any cats escape from any bags. Additionally further non-spoiling hints can be gleaned from both the cover copy and the title itself, a reference to Dante's classical vision of Hell as depicted in his Divine Comedy. Bell's story is riddled with allusions of Heaven and Hell, and more directly it concerns angels and demons and how the existence of such (this being the Gaiman bit, I guess) is very real within this contemporary setting.

The placement of the story in Budapest rather than, say, London or New York, is an inspired choice by Bell, for the landmarks and geography of that great and noble city offer a portentous weight to the proceedings that hugely enhances the atmosphere. Gabriel (our protagonist's name is Gabriel, a fact you're told on the cover, folks! And note the angelic connection) unravels the mystery of his circumstances via a journal in which he records his discoveries and his reactions to them. This narrative device is highly engaging, and Bell skilfully conveys the panic and paranoia Gabriel experiences as he descends into a nightmare world of revelation.

Bell successfully taps into the rich vein of deep-seated biblical superstition that is so compelling in works like The Omen or even The Da Vinci Code -- though I stress that comparisons to that hysterically over-hyped novel end there.

If I have any criticism to level at this generally tight and innovative first novel, it is that as it heads towards the final revelations, the tone of Gabriel's narrative becomes a little shrill, a little too stoked up by the dichotomy of horror and rapture that the character is mired in. This apparent loss of control he suffers is directly opposed to what we learn of both his past and of his personality -- and it doesn't quite gel.

This tiny niggle aside, The Ninth Circle once again shows that Gollancz have a real knack for discovering and nurturing fresh young talent. In Alex Bell there is the promise of further intelligent and commercial novels -- a prized, cherished and all too rare combination in today's genre marketplace.

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