McOmber’s debut novel explores an unseen fantasy just under the surface of Victorian England. Heroine Jane Silverlake has always been a but different, but she has never quite understood how, or why. In an ever-changing, growing London Jane attempts to find her place. Though she was well-born, her mother died mysteriously when she was very young. Since then Jane hears the sounds, the souls of objects. Her father has been patient but absent. Her only companions are friends Madeleine and Nathan. The three wander Hampstead Heath — one of the few places where the sounds are quiet for Jane. They are an unlikely trio as they grow older though, and jealousies begin to arise.
Nathan, an impetuous young man from an upper class family, is obsessed with Jane’s “ability” and becomes embroiled in a strange cult that meets in Southwark. Jane, it seems, has the ability to enter the Empyrean, a cosmic place before existence. When Nathan disappears, though, the girls know that it is more than just a passing fad for him. In comes the detective Vidocq, a real historical figure, to investigate the kidnapping.
The book begins strongly; it pulls no punches. The novel delves into the metaphysical, psychology, with an edge of steampunk, all in a Victorian Gothic setting. McOmber’s tone is forceful yet flowing.
The story of their friendship and Pascal’s eventual dependence on Maddy for both room and board was straightforward enough. Maddy first made his acquaintance outside a small French-style café near Charing Cross. He’d been using a piece of charcoal to draw a picture of a street in the walled city of Nimes where white chickens wandered on cobblestone and irises made silent observance from tilted window boxes. ~Pg. 18
McOmber’s characterization of London is equally enjoyable:
London seemed a series of tall shuttered house that evening, all crowded along a single narrow street. The air was full of dust and the pungent smell of dense humanity. We came as close to Piccadilly as traffic permitted and then dismounted, using a series of passages to avoid getting mired in the congested streets. These “secret passages” were oddities of London, symptoms of a city that had been built and rebuilt — a city without order or plan. The poor made their home in these passages, and we walked through their makeshift parlors, brushing lightly through the darkness with Nathan as our leader. ~Pg. 109
I am not an expert, or even extremely familiar, with the fantasy genre, especially in its most recent iterations. As Jane’s understanding of her place in the world becomes more clear, the book’s tone changes from a mysterious novel with a bit of the supernatural, to a full-fledged fantasy story. In fact the last two or three chapters almost seem like they were written by someone else. The entire style alters. It was equally well-written, just completely different.
This is a solid debut novel and I would recommend it for fans of fantasy who like books rooted in real places or characters.
Many thanks to the folks at Simon and Schuster for the review copy.
Touchstone, September 2012
Hardcover, 320 pages