A few weeks back, I was scanning upcoming titles on NetGalley, and made my usual stop for any cover with books on it. The Quick by Lauren Owen. The synopsis looked fairly promising for one of my page-turner spring break needs. And Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel and some other smart bookish folks had flattering things to say. So I requested and gained access to a novel described thus:
"An astonishing debut, a novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures up all the magic and menace of Victorian London.
London, 1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing-rooms of high society, and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Unnerved, his sister, Charlotte, sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine city that greets her, she uncovers a secret world at the margins populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of one of the country’s preeminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the most ambitious, and most dangerous, men in England."
540+ pages long but I dug right in, entertained by the Gothic, atmospheric qualities of the story, but was a bit gobsmacked to find the story turning to vampires after the first section, well over a hundred pages in. What about that description hinted at vampires? At the mention of danger and the marginalized of London, I pictured some sort of Dickensian menace (and the influence of Dickens is evident in many places here with a whole cast of interesting characters of the streets). Bram Stoker did not cross my mind although he is also present here among those pressing to combat or cure this contagion. But my time is my own for a change this week so I kept reading and enjoyed the book.
Owen has turned out a very readable book. Her prose is sharp. She knows her Gothic and Victorian predecessors and pays tribute to that work in a number of fitting ways. Overall, the pacing is uneven though, and I put the book down not sure of whose story she ultimately wanted to tell. Her character descriptions are wonderful at aiding the reader in visualizing and beginning to understand each of her characters, but then something is always left wanting, each story ultimately not finished. This is appropriate at the close of the novel so that the reader leaves with that discomfort and sense of menace intact, but not elsewhere. I'll be interested to see what Owen writes next though.
The cover on the left above is the US design. The UK cover is on the right. The UK synopsis is also a bit different:
"You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick – But first you must travel to Victorian Yorkshire, and there, on a remote country estate, meet a brother and sister alone in the world and bound by tragedy. In time, you will enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of some of the richest, most powerful men in fin-de-siecle England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide. It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, one of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed."
Would any of you expect vampires from either of these descriptions?