I love a well-written mystery (with and without dogs), and I’m a big fan of compelling fiction that pushes the boundaries of traditionally recognized genres. I’m fascinated by authors who can take that “What if...” question and create something that keeps me reading far into the night. And when the author is another writer who calls the Ozarks home, I want others to know there’s a great book waiting to be savored.
Most of us know the basic story of the Roman Empire’s near-unstoppable march through northern and western Europe. But did you ever wonder what might have happened if the Roman army came upon a place where the people dared to hold fast to their way of life? What if during the 5th century they came upon a place where Celtic traditions and religious practices would not yield to the ways of the mighty Roman Empire?
Imagine a valley serving as a buffer between the Celtlands to the west and the Roman Empire to the east. Imagine a place of small villages linked by rough roads and river barges, with narrow footpaths winding their way up the mountainsides to isolated homesteads. Law and order was ostensibly the charge of the soldiers stationed at the Roman garrisons in the valley, but it was the Celtic magistrates who kept the tenuous peace. Inevitably, it becomes the story of two cultures on a collision course. And there you have the premise of the Mystery of the Death Hearth, first in the Runevision novel series by the author Jack R. Cotner. From the back cover:
In a far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire, the Great Cross—made of Celtic gold and amber now claimed by the Roman church—goes missing along with a fortune in coins and precious gems. Murder soon follows, igniting tensions when church leaders, maneuvering for political gain, are implicated in the violent plot. When the news reaches the Grand Prefect in Rome, Enforcers are sent to identify the thieves and recover the missing treasure.
The trail leads to the Brendan Valley, where it falls to deputy magistrate Weylyn de Gort to work with those whose ways are alien to his Elder Faith beliefs. Along the way, he must find an elusive young Celt girl and her missing grandfather, unravel the mystery of an Elder’s runevision, and avoid death at the hands of an assassin as he faces the greatest challenge of his life.
This story fascinated me from the beginning. It’s not historical fact and doesn’t purport to be. It’s a well-crafted mystery that’s set in a fictional world that might seem both familiar and foreign. Some of that familiarity, at least for me, stems from my own studies and the author’s research of Celtic and Roman lore. (Check the Author’s Note at the start of the book for reading recommendations; you’ll find some wonderful suggestions there to include the work of Professor Miranda Aldhouse-Green.) I learned a great deal about ancient traditions and religious practices without feeling I was being lectured or that one culture was more significant than another. Add in a cleverly constructed plot, a vivid landscape, and characters I could love or hate, and I was hooked!
Each chapter is preceded by an original poem penned by the author. After I’d read the whole story I found myself going back and browsing the poems again. There were several “Aha!” moments as I re-read the poems and thought about the chapter and events that followed.
Mystery of the Death Hearth is available in Kindle and paperback editions (US customers: http://tinyurl.com/lwsmy59; UK: http://tinyurl.com/ly9cehc). Jack is currently working on the second in the series; you can find teasers and tidbits on his website and on his Facebook page.
And for those of you who enjoy mixed-genre short stories, check out Jack’s Storytellin: True & Fictional Short Stories of Arkansas (US customers: http://tinyurl.com/poen7ts; UK: http://tinyurl.com/qh3ab7c). From Amazon:
Inspired by generations of Cotner storytellers (all colorful characters in their own right) the author has crafted a unique collection of short stories set in Arkansas in the early 1900s and spanning half a century. Each story is preceded by recollections of family events that inspired the fictional tales.
Set against the rugged backdrop of the Ouachita Mountains, Storytellin’ brings you ageless tales of hope, fear, laughter, kindness, and retribution.
Whether your preference is for short stories or novels, funny or sad, straightforward or complex, I think you’ll find something to enjoy when reading Jack’s work. I hope you’ll give it a try!