Mark of the Lion, by Suzanne Arruda

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Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

markofthelionThis Jade del Cameron Mysteries series opener, Arruda’s fiction debut, came to my notice back in 2006, from reviews in the library trade publications when it was first published. I’m delighted that I finally got to read it; it definitely didn’t disappoint! It did, however, surprise me in one respect. All of the marketing for the book and series is oriented towards the mystery genre, and the reviews I read didn’t hint at any cross-genre appeal. I knew from the cover copy that it featured skulduggery which the African natives attributed to sorcery; but I assumed that, as usual in the genre, this would prove to be a “Scooby-Doo” type device, in which a faked supernatural disguise was unmasked as a cloak for natural crime. But that’s not the case here! Readers who are put off by the supernatural should be duly warned; those like me, for whom supernatural elements are a plus, will find that an added bonus!

Arruda takes the reader on an exciting ride, from the trauma and dangers of the Western front in the closing months of World War I, to the polyglot bustle of the (unpaved) streets of 1919 Nairobi, and on to the beauty, mystery and deadly danger of the colonial African bush. These settings are evoked with a skill that’s the fruit of obviously serious research (the short Author’s Notes in the back of the book cite several solid primary-source books on the Africa of that day, as well as on the experiences of WWI women ambulance drivers), but that’s integrated into the text without info-dumps or display for its own sake. The plot holds reader interest every minute, and the author’s prose style makes for a quick read.

Jade herself is a wonderful character, brave, smart, caring, tough and capable –definitely my preferred kind of heroine! She picked up her rifle skills growing up on a New Mexico ranch, where she was used to hunting (sometimes for fauna which could hunt her, like a mountain lion). Having served in the Great War as a volunteer ambulance driver, she’s not without physical and emotional damage from the war, and has a hot temper (which she doesn’t always control well); and in some respects Arruda makes her appear somewhat slow on the uptake, in not tumbling to the identity of the culprit(s) sooner. (If the book has a weakness, it’s that this is too easily guessed, despite the author’s attempts to mask it by not allowing Jade to suspect it; this wasn’t a prohibitive flaw for me, though.) But she’s a very easy heroine to like, admire, and root for all the way! The other characters are well-drawn and likeable (or hate-able!) as well.

The colonial Africa of Arruda’s literary vision is realistic (far more so than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’!), but it’s more balanced than either the Africa of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which evokes mostly its fear and menace, or of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which tends to stress the grungier and more sordid aspects. Fear and menace are present here, as well as a sense of age-old mystery, but they’re balanced by beauty and a feeling of invitation to adventure; and the grungy and sordid is there, as it is anywhere, but we get the feeling here that life doesn’t have to focus on that unless we choose to. The wonder of the continent is captured here, at a moment in time when it was still relatively unspoiled, when the wildlife was hunted but not yet endangered, and when the native cultures weren’t totally assimilated by the steamroller of modern “civilization.” Arruda makes her native characters real people as well, not stick figures there to tote loads and wait on the whites (though they do some of that), and she gives us a heroine commendably free of race prejudice. (Jade has Hispanic –and possibly some Moorish– blood herself.) We’re not exposed to the full brutality that British rule sometimes entailed, as readers are in James Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat; but we get glimpses of the racism of the time (happily not shared by all the Brits here!)

This is as much action-adventure fiction as it is a mystery or tale of the supernatural; and like most action adventure, it has some violence. However, none of this is graphic or dwelt on; Arruda may have one character vomit on discovering a mangled body, but she won’t make the reader join in. Bad language is relatively mild, and there’s no obscenity. (Jade herself will cuss some if circumstances evoke it, but she often prefers more creative, and sometimes humorous, expletives probably derived from the slang of the Southwestern frontier.) There’s also no sex, either explicit or implied.

I’d highly recommend this book to most readers that I know. The sequel, Stalking Ivory, is already on my to-read shelf and BookMooch wishlist; and this time, I don’t plan to wait eight years to read it!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

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