Last Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

>> Wednesday, January 23, 2013

TITLE: Last Rituals
AUTHOR: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

PAGES: 314
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary Iceland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series

A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police's belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir is commissioned by his family to find out the truth, with the help - and hindrance - of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich. Their investigations into his research take them deep into a grisly world of torture and witchcraft both past and present, as they draw ever closer to a killer gripped by a dangerous obsession...

Thóra Guðmundsdóttir is a lawyer in Reykjavík, Iceland. She's newly divorced and in her 40s, and dealing with the responsibility of raising her two children and a struggling law practice. The cases she and her partner tend to take on are mostly boring stuff and don't pay particularly well. And then she receives a phone call from Germany.

A few weeks earlier, a body was found at the university, with all sorts of ritual-looking symbols carved onto it and the eyes missing. The police immediately arrested a drug dealer with whom the dead man, Harald Guntlieb, had last been seen. Harald's wealthy family, however, have reasons to think the police have got it wrong. They have sent their company's head of security, Matthew Reich, to investigate, but not speaking Icelandic, he's hitting some walls. They offer Thóra (who studied in Germany, and therefore speaks the language) a very temptingly high fee to work with him.

Despite some doubts, Thóra accepts, and before long, she and Matthew are immersed in Harald's world. Harald had an obsessive interest in medieval witch huntings, which were part of his History studies at University, and Thóra and Matthew soon beging to suspect the killing must be somehow related to this.

Very mixed feelings about this one. It had some good (nay, great) points. The best was that I absolutely loved the Icelandic setting. Apparently the book was written for the Icelandic market, with no thought that it might be translated, so the everyday details are all very matter of fact and felt completely natural. At the same time, Matthew is an outsider, so some things have to be explained to him, and the history involved is clearly on the obscure side, so Sigurðardóttir doesn't assume knowledge on the reader's part. That was great, and well done.

So was the setup of the case. It's really fascinating, and apart from the fact that the body has no eyes, it's more focused on the really amazing history than on the grisly bits. I don't think you need a particularly strong stomach for it. The investigative choices were all fine, too, with Matthew and Thóra taking intelligent steps and no points where I felt like they were being stupid for not doing something obvious.

Unfortunately, that's it for the positives. I had definite issues with the authors' plotting, because a lot of the case depended on secondary character hiding or not revealing things for no reason. Too many of the characters say at some point that they didn't think X was relevant to the investigation, when it was really obvious that it was the kind of thing the police would definitely want to know. Also, several of these characters behave in ways I thought were on the unbelievable side. But ok, while a bit annoying, I would have been able to live this.

What really ruined my enjoyment of this book was the characterisation, especially the fact that I could not stand Thóra. Pretty much all of the characters are cartoonish and unbelievable, but Thóra was the real problem. She is a sanctimonious jerk and extremely judgmental. Every single thing even slightly outside her tiny narrow worldview is greeted with a euwww! Harold's body modifications, for instance. Piercings, euwww! You get a definite whiff of disapproval from the narration. He's weird, she's weird, they're not normal. Oh, and her mental comments about her secretary's weight are particularly bad.

Thóra is also a total ninny. She keeps getting embarrassed about the most idiotic things and blushing and generally acting like an unwordly 12-year-old, rather than a 40-year-old mother of 2. She's the type of person who, when she didn't sleep in her bed in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, will run to her room the next morning to mess up the bed, so that the hotel maid doesn't think she's promiscuous. Oh, grow up. I especially 'loved' the scene when she's at home watching trashy TV and when Matthew calls her, she says she's reading War and Peace "by Dostoyevsky". I think that was supposed to be funny, but clearly, the humour here just didn't click with me.

I also had quite a low opinion of Thóra's legal chops and mental acuity. She can't even rid herself of an incompetent and positively hostile secretary, even though she and her partner do a lot of employment law. As for her intelligence, she keeps jumping to completely illogical conclusions. Like, her son says "I need to see some people", and she immediately thinks "Some people?? Had he joined a cult?" Whaaa? She does this constantly, and it drove me bonkers. But then, when she should actually draw some conclusions, like when her daughter innocently tells her that her brother is no fun, because when he's supposed to be babysitting her, he locks himself in his room with his friend, and they jump on the bed and howl (gee, I wonder what they could be doing), she's completely oblivious. Oh, and how about this one? She's just had the news that her son is in a spot of trouble, and Mrs. Guntlieb is coming to Iceland to speak to her, mother to mother. Thóra panics. What is she supposed to tell this woman when she asks about her children? That her son X and her daughter Y, and oh, how awful! Er, this is a professional relationship, how about saying "they're very well, thank you" and leaving it at that? Twit.

This series is quite a few books long now, and all the cases sound truly amazing. Unfortunately, I'd have to explore them in Thóra's company, and I just can't face the prospect.

MY GRADE: A C-, since I did enjoy the case, if not the main character.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: Not good. It was this version, and I really, really disliked Kim Hicks' narration. She gave some characters particularly nasty, annoying voices. One of them was Martha Mist. She's one of Harold's friends, a character the author makes quite nasty and hypocritical. Hicks, however, goes far beyond the character assassination in the text and makes her even worse than she's supposed to be. Random female characters are done as shrill and horrid, again, completely outside of the text. Then there's the accents. Matthew speaks in a comedy German accent for the entire book, and the one Hicks does for two Filipinas who work as cleaners at the university is particularly offensive. They're talking amongst themselves, presumably in their own language, why give them an accent that makes them sound like utter idiots?


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