I picked this book up after seeing a Facebook conversation about it in which it was described as a Victorian romp with classic horror elements. An allusion was made to Stephen King, and by happenstance there was a picture of a statue I’d done an essay on for a Far Eastern Art class. I was deeply intrigued.
To be honest, the first few pages made me a little meh. How many books do the “we’ll hint at the ending on the first page and then drag you through the whole story anyway” thing? Plus, at first I found the heightened language of narrator’s voice to be a bit much. Oh, but oh was I wrong to judge so harshly so quickly. By the fourth page I was intrigued by where the story could possibly go, and by the tenth page I already knew I was in love.
First, there’s the method of storytelling. Fans of the horror genre know that multiple narrative voices, the use of letters, or fractured timelines are as old as the hills. Frankenstein is one shining example, Dracula is another. While Hunt pays homage to the old greats by using this method, which is as immediately comfortable as a pair of well-worn work boots, he does it in a way that is very unrestrained and clever. Instead of staying to a single form, such as letters, he uses letters as well as flashback narration and novelization in the protagonist’s current timeline. While other authors find themselves tripping over a confused central voice while balancing perspectives (Oh, Veronica Roth, we still need to talk) Hunt never misses a beat: the multiple voices in his story serve to dangle some information in front of the reader while obscuring other, helping to keep the pace consistent and the story full of layers of intrigue. I have the deepest respect for the work that Hunt must have done as a student of the genre before embarking on his journey as a writer.
The second is the setting. Stylized Victorian settings tend to make me itch, as they are endlessly problematic. I’ve seen, for instance, the kind of misogyny that female readers are all too uncomfortable with in the world of fantasy excused as “an artifact of the time” when written into Victorian style literature. It gets old, fast. How many one-dimmensional women can be thrown into horror stories just to give a pleasantly heaving bosom for the male protagonist to rescue and then unlace? But there is none of that nonsense here! I found Hunt’s treatment of his female characters (of which there are a pleasant variety) to be quite refreshing. The deference and respect paid to them by the male protagonist, Davey, made me smile. The best thing is the casual way in which he dismissed the less lady-friendly attitudes of side characters with Davey’s responses. In one instance, one character states that their expedition is no place for a woman, “particularly an Englishwoman.”
Davey responds, “I wish you luck in telling her so. If you have served Her Majesty here in India, you clearly have some measure of bravery; it will take all that and more to suggest to Mrs. Shackleford that she not go.”
Ah. Like a breath of fresh air.
Another thing that typically makes it hard for me to read genre fiction is how often writers rely on tropes. Now, I love a great trope. And as a writer, I understand how writing re-imaginings of the things you’ve loved in books past can be the fiction author’s equivalent of macaroni and cheese. You know, comfort food. So I get that everyone loves a good noble rogue and mysterious stranger and call to heroism. Sure! It’s older than written language itself! But a skilled writer will find a way to take the reader’s expectation, well formed from their familiarity with the trope, and shape it into something new and surprising. Hunt does this multiple times in quite clever ways. I won’t spoil the story by giving specifics, but I’ll just say that this book now includes my FAVORITE use of the Mysterious Stranger- when the big reveal happened, I squealed with surprise and happiness.
Then, there is the setting. Victorian India is a bit fetishized and has been since, well, a Victorian India first existed in Victorian days. But this book doesn’t read at all like fetish fantasy. For one, Hunt is obviously well schooled in actual history. The artifacts he discusses, the little illuminations of setting, and the dynamic of inter-relationships between characters all show a great deal of education and thoughtfulness. Reading this novel doesn’t result in the sort of magic realism that comes from suspending disbelief and accepting this version of reality as the one in the author’s head. Hunt’s India isn’t an acceptable alternative to the real place. Hunt’s India isn’t magically real: it is real, plain and simple. The taste of reality in the book makes the fantasy all that more delightful, as one imagines that this tale would be wholly believable to readers of the time, and is colored in all the colors of a world that once wholeheartedly accepted mesmerism and possession as a part of science as of yet unexplained.
I was absolutely delighted by this book and plan to pass several copies along to some of my favorite readers. Hunt has great command not just of storytelling as a craft, but a cunning balance of education and inventiveness to boot. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are more convincing worlds and breathtaking tales to come. Highly recommended.