“The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps” by Michel Faber

Siân wakes up from the same nightmare of her grisly death every morning. Hoping that manual work can distract her from the terrible dreams, she joins an archaeological dig in Whitby Abbey, but after meeting Magnus, her skills as a paper conservator are invaluable to help solve the mystery of the confessions written on a centuries old scroll that has been imprisoned in a bottle.

In this short but wonderfully written story, a Gothic mixture of romance, murder mystery and the ghosts of both Whitby and Siân’s past, the parallel threads of the unravelling of the delicate manuscript and the unravelling story of Siân’s past converge to a satisfying (although not altogether unpredictable) conclusion.

The acknowledgements tell us the artist in residence at Whitby Abbey requested a short story to be written inspired by the English Heritage dig, and I liked that although the dig is part of Siân’s life and escape, it is more the Abbey and the reason for the dig that prove the inspiration, not the dig itself.

The character of Siân felt very real and genuine, and it’s through her narrative that the story is told. However, my only slight criticism is that due to the brevity of the format and writing, the character of Magnus tends to be slight in comparison and I didn’t always feel I understood his actions or reactions.

The story itself was gripping, exciting and fast paced, unusually so, considering it relates to what would seem to be the detailed, considered work of a paper conservator. A very good read, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the books from this author I have already lined up.

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