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by David Liss

Pub Date: Aug. 9th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6896-8
Publisher: Random House

In this change of literary direction, Liss mixes his considerable knowledge of 19th-century England and its industrialization period with a touch of literal magic.

Sweet Lucy Derrick’s past luck has been anything but good. Her father favored eldest daughter Emily, but when Emily died, it brought him and Lucy closer together. Then her father also passed away, leaving Lucy and Martha, the middle Derrick girl, without money or prospects. Martha selflessly married the disagreeable Mr. Buckles with the hopes that he would provide for both her and Lucy, but Buckles forced Lucy from the family home. That is how Lucy came to find herself under the roof of a dyspeptic uncle and his rotten-to-the-core retainer, Mrs. Quince. Lucy’s only suitor, a mill owner named Olson, makes hosiery in a dark, dirty place where women, children and the elderly toil under untenable conditions for slender wages. Olson, who has no redeeming qualities other than being one of the few successful businessmen in town, plans to marry Lucy, even though Lucy wants no part of him, although she acknowledges her prospects are dim. A youthful indiscretion with a much older man has tainted her in the eyes of many, although the runaway lovers were intercepted before anything could happen. Alone, relatively friendless and without resources, Lucy is amazed when the beautiful and mysterious Mary Crawford befriends her, and even more astounded when she finds unsuspected talents for practicing the art of magic. Through Mary, Lucy discovers an innate ability to understand and cast spells, but at the same time, Lucy’s life is caught up in other things she does not understand: the burgeoning Luddite movement, a visit from a handsome, well-known nobleman and mounting fear engendered by shadowy dark creatures that others cannot see and do not realize are there. Liss writes in the almost formal style of that period and faithfully conveys England’s atmosphere during the early advent of mechanization, but the convoluted story moves at a tiresome pace.

This odd mixture of industrial history and the occult world lacks charm and coherency, but it earns points for ambition and characterization.