The Academy of the Lynx (actually Lynxes) – Accademia dei Lincei – was an early scientific society, founded in Rome in 1603 by Federico Cesi, son of an Italian duke; Galileo was an early member. (The name was chosen because the lynx is sharp-eyed.) So in making a search for the lost Library of the Lynx the occasion of her novel, Clio Gray is not dealing in a Da Vinci Code sort of fantasy or historical nonsense. The library has been dispersed and now, at the end of the 18th century, Golo Eck – a descendant of one of the first academicians – is trying to recover it. This is a nice starting point for a Romance or quest novel, and Gray writes with bravura, invention and a wild imagination.
The plot is complicated, but sufficiently fast-moving for the reader to suspend disbelief. It is rich in incident. Golo has two colleagues, his ward Ruan and a young Irishman called Fergus, who are on bad terms with each other The rumour that part of the library may be in Wexford takes Fergus back to Ireland, where he becomes involved with the 1798 Rising of the United Irishmen and a young Irish patriot called Greta. There are battles, disappearances, shipwrecks, a couple of murders, brutal even by the bloody standards of crime fiction today, and rivals also in search of the lost library. The characterisation, it should be said, is somewhat perfunctory.
This is essentially a novel of incident, and there is no shortage of that, much of it splendidly realised and recounted. It’s a novel you read for the story first of all, and this observation is not intended to be disparaging. Narrative is after all the core of fiction. It is narrative interest that has the reader turning the page. Of course, all the Lynx stuff is hokum, despite its historical basis, but it is good quality hokum.
Gray doesn’t trust only to her imagination, startling though it is. She has done a prodigious amount of research, and digested it so thoroughly that it doesn’t obtrude. Any writer setting a novel in the late 18th century is likely to experience problems with dialogue. This is true of course of all historical novels, but the problem becomes more acute when the period is one in which novels that are still read were written. Do you try to catch their tone, which may run the risk of writing only pastiche? Or do you have your characters speaking in modern English? There is a risk here too: that the language of conversation doesn’t chime with the time and setting. For the most part, Gray employs a neutral language, but somewhat inconsistently. There are modern colloquialisms that jar. In the first chapter, or Preface, for instance we read that a letter “smacked of a scam”. At another point the girl Greta says she is “sorry to be a bit thick”. Still the occasional infelicity of this sort is venial in a long and action-packed novel which roves over the British Isles and many parts of the Continent, from the Netherlands to Rome.
Eventually, after so many adventures, comes the realisation that “Everything connected, from beginning to end, from when Federico Cesi first puzzled over rocks turning into trees – or trees turning into rocks – and enlisting his band of merry men to help him explore the puzzles of the universe; lines of men linking down the years, lines of footprints in the mud leading on from one to the other until here Ruan was.” There should be reconciliation at the end of a quest novel, and Gray provides it: “New moon rising, new world unfolding at his feet.” But of course, if such reconciliation is necessary, or at least desirable, it’s the adventures on the way that are the meat of the novel, and there is no shortage of rich and sustaining meat in The Legacy of the Lynx. Gray has been building a reputation with each of her eight previous novels; this one will surely satisfy and please her growing readership.