PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, so often characterised as a romance, was notably violent and grim. Visitors to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh who would like to sense the brutal reality should pay attention to a very small room off the royal bedchamber – it was here, on 9 March 1566, that David Rizzio, Mary’s private secretary and favourite, was murdered ... Denise Mina’s Rizzio dramatises the murder and its aftermath: the queen a prisoner, her life threatened. Mina makes no attempt at recreating the language of the Scottish court, opting instead for hard-boiled sentences, stabby and pithy ... Mina is good at the institutionalised and individual misogyny of the period, subtly connecting it to those issues in our own time ... Mary was a powerful woman whose gender made her vulnerable both physically and in terms of her hold on that power. Although Mina touches on this idea throughout, it feels at times as though this short novel is a step towards a longer work, one in which the predicament and point of view of the queen are explored in much greater depth. Perhaps she will write that book one day. Rizzio, meanwhile, is an intriguing sketch in blood.
MixedThe Scotland Herald (UK) (UK)That, certainly, was the girl we knew in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Yet a certain heaviness has descended. She feels as though she is dragging around chains .. The chief pleasures of this novel are those of recognition. First, there is gratification in seeing familiar characters at later stages in their lives. Secondly, readers of Lyra’s Oxford, a stocking-filler published for Christmas 2003, who puzzled over why a facsimile of a cruise liner brochure had been reproduced among the endpapers, and what was the meaning of the note handwritten on the ship’s timetable – well, they will have their curiosity satisfied. How delicious to recognise that the author has been laying a breadcrumb trail all this time ... Across almost 700 pages, however, The Secret Commonwealth is uneven. It too often reads like John le Carré fan fiction. Where Pullman excels is in set pieces ... This is not a bedtime story. Pullman depicts sexual assault, refugees in peril on the sea, and violent religious fanatics who seem modelled on Islamic State ... Pullman is confronting readers with the horrors of our own world reflected back at us. In The Secret Commonwealth he creates a fearful symmetry.
MixedThe GuardianThis 'shadow city' she peoples with real figures from the time, including the razor thug Billy Fullerton and crime boss Dandy McKay, relishing the creative act of putting flesh on their unlovely bones. The best three chapters in the book are told from the perspective of minor characters ... Curious that the inner life of Manuel himself does not receive such close imaginative recreation. Perhaps Mina considers him unknowable, or is unwilling to think herself into the murk of his head. Manuel wrote his name in blood across postwar Scotland. Mina’s attempt to trace that signature in ink is interesting but perhaps ultimately unnecessary. It was, in any case, indelible.