When sleep finally comes, I sink into a murky world of shadows. There is a tunnel before me, with bright light in the distance. The ground rumbles. White fog surrounds me. My heart is pounding. Something is coming, but I do not know what, and only feel its presence, a terrible shadow that slithers along the ground, leaving a trail of crimson blood in its wake.
The Mesmerist, by Ronald L. Smith

Well, then. I had heard that Smith’s Hoodoo was scary—more on that at the very end of the column—and while The Mesmerist didn’t send my pants screaming for the hills, passages like the one above VERY DEFINITELY made me break out in goosebumps.

It’s been five years since the death of Jessamine Grace’s father, and she and her mother are still feeling his loss, emotionally and economically. Jessamine, now thirteen, is helping her mother make ends meet—taking advantage of the booming spiritualism movement, they’re posing as mediums to deliver messages from Beyond The Grave to their grieving customers. But then… it turns out that Jess actually IS a medium. More than that, she’s a mesmerist:

“A mesmerist has prophetic dreams and can read the thoughts of others,” Balthazar replies. “They can make shadows appear where none exist, and cast illusions that break one’s spirit.”

It turns out that Jess’ father didn’t die of consumption. He was killed in a fight with a monster. He—and her mother—were part of a secret order called the League of Ravens, a group that worked to keep Britain safe from paranormal threats. Now the thing that killed her father is back, and not just threatening the safety of the country… it’s specifically targeting Jess.

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But she won’t be alone in fighting it. As Balthazar—an old friend and comrade of her parents—puts it:

“The dark is rising. It is time for a new generation to stop the evil that is stirring in the shadows.”

As someone who grew up on Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, I got full-on chills when I hit that line. It’s possible that I might have even teared up a little bit, but I ADMIT NOTHING.

So much to love here! There are tons of details about the time period—Jess is concerned about her mother’s absinthe habit, even—and it’s atmospheric while still feeling very SPECIFIC. (So much so that it made me realize how often atmospheric historicals set in England rely on MIST and FOG and FOOTSTEPS ON WET COBBLESTONES rather than, as I said, specific period details.)

Smith creates a core cast of characters from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds and experiences—one of them in particular has a Secret Backstory that is especially deftly handled—and his secondary and tertiary characters are all vivid and well-drawn as well. I love love LOVE that Jess’ thoughts and actions occasionally contradict themselves—she’s aware that reading minds is a horrible invasion, for instance, but she keeps trying to do it, because of course she does. That makes her feel far more real than she would have if she’d exhibited Lawful Good Immediate Restraint.

While this is a historical fantasy, the danger feels entirely immediate and entirely real—in large part because the Big Bad stirs up anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attitudes, encouraging Londoners to turn on each other. Which they do, with relish. For this reader, at least, those scenes were honestly scarier than the necromancy. That said, the action sequences and horror imagery are absolutely tip-top A+, and there’s a good amount of humor to ease the tension:

“Balthazar?” I venture. “What a strange name. And his surname?”
“Just Balthazar,” she says vaguely. “He was a friend of Papa’s.”
I find this very odd. What could Father’s friend have to do with what happened yesterday? Also, what kind of man deigns to go about without a surname? That, in my opinion, is the height of vanity.

There are a couple of moments that felt more in line with easing the plot along than they did logical behavior, but I know that Younger Leila wouldn’t have even noticed because she’d have been so enthralled by moments like this:

I snap the lash back and the thongs unfurl from his boot. I feel beads of sweat on my face. It is unseemly for a lady to sweat. Says who? I think, and turn quickly, lashing out at the dressmaker’s form again.

And to be honest, Present-Day Leila didn’t care all that much either, as she was so enamored of The Mesmerist that she immediately picked up Hoodoo when she was finished and proceeded to sneak-read it on and off for the rest of her workday.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.