Thursday, 5 January 2012


Twitter-style summary: When court painter, Hugo spots young Johann's talent for painting a true likeness, he doesn't realise the true scope of his protege's power.

Why did I commission this book?

It's perfect.

What? You mean I have to write more than that in order to give people a true sense of how my editorial brain works? Oh. Right, erm...

The thing is, sometimes it's that simple.

Let's set the scene: January 2010, I've returned after a long winter break to an ever-growing slushpile and made the heart-wrenching decision to close my inbox to unsolicited submissions (here's why). I pick one from the top because I find myself inexplicably short of lunch time reading and scan the covering letter - it's short, professional and contains no gimmicks. This is the kind of cover letter I like. I completely by-pass the synopsis and go straight to the real writing. (Read between the lines: spend the time on your book, not the synopsis. We editors and agents all know they're hard to write and suck the heart out of your story like a half-starved zombie. Rarely has a submission been dismissed on the weakness of its synopsis. [NB synopsis is not to be confused with plot. Weak plots may well be rejected.
{And never use multiples brackets the way I'm doing right now, either.}])

Anyway, where was I? Right. I was reading: 'Ooh,' says my brain. 'Me likey.' Or something more articulate, because I am an editor and words are my thing. I read the synopsis and think the me likey thoughts again. Sandwich finished, I pick up the phone ask to speak to Richard Knight and ask him to send over the rest of the manuscript. Turns out me likey the rest of the book too. LOTS.

What did I like?

The effortlessness of the narrative. Richard has an incredibly light touch when it comes to conveying historical detail, yet I came away with a very strong sense of time and place. (Please note my grasp of European geography and history is hazy at best, so this is an impressive feat on the writer's behalf.)

The characters. Johann is not my typical fall-for hero, he's both lighter and darker than other characters I've adored. Naive, yet ambitious, insecure but assured: he's what you want him to be - and what you don't. The surrounding cast are carefully drawn, their own hopes and dreams, beliefs and shortcomings are secrets to be shared with the discerning reader but not each other.

The philosophical question at the heart of what could just have been a straight tale of the perils of being talented. This is about how art can change perceptions, just by presenting you with want you what to see, somehow seeing it, believing it, can make what it portrays true. But Richard doesn't just stop with the nature of truth, he's going to push this further so that the metaphysical questions becomes the moral ones...

But this is what I took from the story - the joy of this book is that there's so many ways it can be interpreted, it can spin you off on a thousand different thought tangents, all the while rooted in great storytelling. Had I read this as a child, it would still be on my shelf and in my mind.

Basically, for me, it's perfect on every level.


  1. Oh come on, a bit more of the plot please!

  2. I'm so glad you commissioned it because I think it's bloody awesome too! :)

  3. Very nice post. Since words are your thing, you might be interested in a series of posts I have been doing on the word play involved in cryptic crosswords. The first one is:
    It has now evolved into a daily series. I find it great fun - much better than ordinary crosswords.