Sixteen-year-old Ezra McAdam has much to be thankful for: trained up as an apprentice by a well-regarded London surgeon, Ezra’s knowledge of human anatomy and skill at the dissection table will secure him a trade for life. However, his world is turned on its head when a failed break-in at his master’s house sets off a strange and disturbing series of events that involves grave robbing, body switching … and murder. Meanwhile, sparky, persuasive young Loveday Finch, daughter of the late Mr Charles Finch, magician, has employed Ezra to investigate her father’s death, and there are marked similarities between his corpse and the others. The mystery takes Ezra and Loveday from the Operating Theatre at St Bart’s to the desolate wasteland of Coldbath Fields, from the streets of Clerkenwell to the dark, damp vaults of Newgate Prison, and finally to the shadowy and forbidding Ottoman Embassy, which seems to be the key to it all…
What initially caught my attention with Sawbones was the somewhat dark and a little macabre cover, and subsequently the very short and brief synopsis that hinted to one mystery and perhaps an even bigger one lying beneath.
Having read The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson and more recently Unrest by Michelle Harrison, two books that both took me out of my comfort zone I decided to follow my gut, take a leap of faith and go for it. Turns out I should do that more often!
Catherine Johnson’s story unfolds from an uncommon source in the rough and dirty London of 1792. Our narrator is non-other than a sixteen-year-old mulatto boy by the name of Ezra, a surgeon apprentice to one of the most prestigious and experienced surgeons of London. Under William McAdams wing he has grown up free, a man of truth and science, where rationality and reason reign sovereign, and where the mysteries of life lie in death and the veil that hides them will eventually be cut down by the scalpel of a surgeon postmortem.
Science is bursting with the desire to grow, expand and pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable faster than it is accepted. Surgeons need to practice and need to learn, and they need corpses to both. Unfortunately not everyone willingly gives their body to science. It is in this environment that the resurrectionists are born, also known as grave robbers. Thieves paid well by thirsty scientific minds to bring to the anatomizing table a dead body that perhaps was laid to rest with the intention of staying that way.
When we meet him his biggest concern is not losing the girl he is giving his attention to now that he has come of age, and being taken seriously in the blooming surgeon community given the colouring of his skin. But when a corpse turns up on his master’s anatomizing table with a couple too many unexplained quirks, ones that might get undesired attention and might imply that the poor soul may actually be missed and claimed, Ezra raises his concerns with his master. Add to the mix a red headed girl with a fiery and willful personality who seeks revenge for the death of her father which she claims is murder, and you have yourself a mystery. But the mystery goes beyond that. There are more ingredients to this recipe, and the intrigues run deeper than the scalpel has initially cut and further than the streets of London.
Sawbones’s narration was as clean cut and objective as the scalpel and the mind of he that wields them. Ezra tells us his most peculiar adventure in a fashion that shows a mind brought up surrounded by reality and reason, where no laws are defied and common sense and logic are the rules that must be abided. The language and style were faithful to such a mind and showed great care and research on behalf of the very clever author. Every detail was delivered with some detachment; detachment that I would also expect in someone who has made the examination of death his business, and therefore no description appeared or transpired as gruesome or stomach churning. The critical eye delivered an accurate picture allowing both my mind and his to soak in the relevant information to attempt to solve the ever growing puzzle of bodies.
Sawbones wasn’t quite what I expected, for some reason I had some version of Jack The Ripper murders in my mind. But it did not dissapoint by any means and was a very welcomed break of the increasing thrillers that has some romantic thread along the way. The pure science and riddle solving mind that Ezra brought to the story was refreshing. And because his reasoning was so dictated by logic I was able to follow each of his steps and conclusions, meaning that for once I was actually able to solve the murder mystery at the same time he was!!! Total bonus!!! And I have to say that I am (admittedly rather pathetically) very proud of myself!!! * claps and dances around *
Verdict: Dark, sharp and refreshing.
Reviewed by Pruedence