The Ninth Circle
By Alex Bell
(Gollancz, 17 April 2008)
I'd had my eye on this book for a while - the blurb on the back appealed to me instantly - but I was reluctant to part with £12.99 for what is a pretty short book (266 pages). I eventually ended up buying it as a birthday present for my other half (yeah, it was what I call a 'guilty present' - something that is a suitable present for someone else, but also something I want for myself) and so once she'd read it I figured I'd give it a go.
Firstly, the cover - I'm still not sure whether I like it or not. I do like the colours and the mood of it, but at the same time it's hard to escape the fact that it looks like someones vomited all over it.
Anyway, moving on...
Since my teenage years I've always had an interest in the occult (demons, magic, secret societies and ceremonies, etc) and subsequently I tend to enjoy films and literature that involve this sort of thing (which I guess is why I'm one of the few people who actually likes the similarly-titled Polanski film The Ninth Gate).
The premise of this novel, as I said, appealed to me from the start. Gabriel Antaeus wakes up in an apartment in Budapest with amnesia. He's covered in his own blood, there's a stack of cash on the kitchen table and a rather large number of books about demonology on his shelves. Aside from knowing his own name, he hasn't got a clue who he really is or what he's doing in Budapest. After coming to terms with his awful predicament, Gabriel starts to try and uncover his own past...and quickly becomes immersed in a startling series of events that could trigger the apocalypse. Sometimes, as they say, the past is better left buried.
There's a lot to recommend The Ninth Gate. Gabriel Antaeus makes for an interesting protagonist, and Bell does a commendable job of revealing his thoughts and feelings (which, given the amnesia he suffers from, range from despair to hope with a healthy dose of paranoia). The novel is presented in a diary format, written in the first person, and the personal nature of this style works very well - it's very enjoyable seeing how Antaeus deals with each nugget of information that he uncovers - as well as how he handles the unsettling visions and nightmares he suffers from.
Bell's prose flows well and background information is deftly provided without affecting the drive of the story. The plot is well-structured, allowing for a number of exciting twists, while the well-researched theological aspects provide an absorbing foundation for the unfolding story. The backdrop of Budapest is an inspired choice, and perfectly fits the tone of the novel.
So why didn't The Ninth Gate quite work for me?
Well, for a variety of reasons. Most are small, niggly problems, but problems none the less. Antaeus - while generally a good protagonist - can also be pretty annoying at times (yeah, it's wrong to speak ill of God. I get it. I got it after the fifth time he made a point about it). As engaging as the other characters are, there's not enough of them. In fact, there's only six significant characters in the whole novel, of which only three are really involved for the most part. The problem with this is that it's fairly easy to spot the antagonist, which drains some of the tension created by a later revelation.
The plot loses momentum at one point and sags for a while (can't quite remember where - third quarter perhaps?) and becomes rather monotonous, until picking up again as the climax approaches. Furthermore, it doesn't really stand up to close inspection - it's possible to pick holes in it if you bother to think carefully enough. The reason given for one particular character's lack of earlier intervention seemed particularly weak. I wasn't totally convinced by the origin of the various clues to Antaeus's former identity that kept popping up throughout the story, though the overall reason for his amnesia was admittedly pretty interesting (as were the revelations about his former life).
Many reviews I've read of The Ninth Gate are complimentary about the way Bell brings Budapest to life. I have to disagree - I didn't think this aspect was particularly impressive. In fact, I was rather disappointed. Having been to Budapest very recently (and having visited several of the locations that appear in the novel) I was looking forward to seeing how Bell presented the city in her book, but I didn't take much from her representation. I didn't really get a feeling for the unique identity of the city from her writing - for me, it felt like she could have been writing about any generic city and was just dropping place names here and there.
Bell's prose - while good for the most part - suffers from her tendency to use italics more often than required. A minor point, sure - and perhaps one that will not bother many readers - but it rankled with me a little. The dialogue should be good enough for me to work out for myself when a character is putting emphasis on a word, rather than the author having to rely on italics (although for the most part Bell's dialogue is pretty good).
Verdict: Alex Bell shows plenty of encouraging signs in what is - for the most part - an entertaining, absorbing read. It's just a shame that a series of minor niggles tarnish what could have otherwise been a very impressive debut novel. Still, Bell's got time on her side and there's enough here to suggest that she's got plenty more to offer.