Shadow (the hero of Gaiman’s preceding novel American Gods) winds his way to Scotland, where he is promptly and improbably hired for the security detail at a posh party at a manor house in a desolate spot. It doesn’t take long for Shadow to realise that he’s been tricked, and that his presence is somehow required for a sinister ritual that is to take place on the grounds.
The Monarch of the Glen stands on its own, so you don’t really have to have read American Gods to get it (even though a certain Mr. Wednesday makes a semi-return appearance), but it is in itself frustratingly vague and at times almost sloppy.
Some of the vagueness, I’m sure, is on purpose, since I get the feeling that this novella acts as glue between American Gods and whatever adventures Shadow gets up to next. Characters are introduced whose story arcs are not resolved, there’s a fuzzy subplot about the mythological ship Nagelfar that’s never fully explained, and the climax of the ritual and its aftermath are somewhat confusing in that you don’t get a sense of how this long-running tradition actually works (now it’s me being vague, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers). All of these factors may be stuff Gaiman keeps back for future exploration, but it’s still a bit annoying.
Other things are clearly unintentionally dubious, like the use of deus ex machina to resolve a situation near the ending, and the fact that the build-up to the finale is full of beautiful detailed description and fine tension, while the finale itself comes rather abruptly and is lacking in detail, making it something of a letdown despite its superficial flamboyance.
Unlike American Gods, this story also suffers from Shadow’s complacency. The novel was about events witnessed by Shadow, so that he was a passageway for the reader into that strange world. In The Monarch of the Glen, on the other hand, Shadow is – at first unbeknownst to himself – the very centre of attention and the one character under threat. Since he just stoically accepts that this is so, and in fact makes the decision to stay put in his dangerous situation, it’s hard to feel much suspense; if he doesn’t worry, then why should the reader?
The Monarch of the Glen is saved by Gaiman’s graceful prose and transcendant imagination, and by the clean and simple but highly beguiling set-up in the early parts. Also enticing are a number of vividly realised characters and the fascinating historical and/or mythical stories they tell. It stays interesting from start to finish, but ultimately it lacks the panache needed to make it truly thrilling.
Rating: 5 of 10.