A Splendid Novel of Victorian England That Transforms Into Something Very Different 100 Pages In

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2014 7:59 AM

The Horror

A splendid historical novel turns into something very different 100 pages in. But don’t stop reading!

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And anyhow, listen: If you’re too nice (in the Victorian sense) for fantasy, you’ll miss out on Margaret Atwood’s splendid MaddAddam trilogy. If you’re too effete for fantasy, then nope, no Angela Carter for you. If you’re too fancy for fantasy, well then you’re in danger of living your life minus the supreme pleasure of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I read in the pool of a Mexican resort because I couldn’t put it down. If you’re not too fancy for a little fantasy, well then skip the rest of this review and quick, go get The Quick.

Quick.

Because it’s at this point in the book that things begin to really rollick. The London-based Aegolius Club is not your average exclusive brandy-steeped, dark-paneled gentleman's club, no indeed. Entrance to such a club as this requires a certain pallidness, an achromasia, a terrific effeteness peculiar to the very high-born undead. Here's where James ends up. And here's where his sister, Charlotte, rushes, unlikely hero that she is, to rescue him.

Charlotte is awkward, self-conscious, hesitant, sweaty, respectable, and driven by a sort of Christian guilt to save her brother who, duh, can’t be saved. (Or can he?) I’ve always appreciated a good sister-champion; Charlotte is particularly appealing for her sense of mission and her quavering ladylike courage. Her internal observations make for some of the most slyly entertaining reading in The Quick. “Wealth instilled confidence, of course,” she thinks, as a new acquaintance uses someone else’s kitchen without asking. “One could make free with others’ possessions then, because one would always be able to replace them, if necessary.”

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Owen honed her ability at the adventure story while writing Harry Potter fan-fiction as an adolescent. She weaves what’s here with what’s beyond as easily as J.K. Rowling does, and as with Rowling, she seems to feel particularly at home with the beyond. Some readers will undoubtedly feel that they’d rather wait to read Owen when she gets over her attraction to the supernatural, as Rowling has (for the moment, anyhow). But just like literary fiction, the world of fantasy has its hacks and its artists, and the task of a reader ought to be finding the artists, whatever they’re writing about.

Lauren.

Photo by Urszula Soltys

For The Quick, Owen invented a whole society of fiends who dwell among us simpler, weaker, quick-blooded types (their supper). But, while all of Owen’s monsters are of the Transylvanian variety, they're separated from each other by birth, education, pocketbook. And let's just say that the effete Aegolians and the streetwise Alias don’t exactly get along. Class warfare's generally good fun; in this particular case, it's a little hard to root for either of the fanged camps, as both would like to have Charlotte and her allies for their tea. A character called Doctor Knife is among the reasons for the extremity of their antipathy for each other. Doctor Knife is one of “the quick,” that is, a regular old guy of the warm-blooded persuasion. But the Aegolians use him to do their research for them, and the Alia kids he takes as subjects, like urchin-bloodsucker Nick, whisper about him:

Nick had told all the kids the story of Doctor Knife. He was a small and grayish fellow—nothing out of the ordinary until you got up close.
“Then you see his eyes,” Nick had said.
“ ’E’s one of the Quick, though, ain’t he?”
Nick nodded. “Makes it worse. Means ‘e don’t want us to eat, whatever ‘e wants us for.”

Apparently, even the dead get creeped out.

It’s not uncommon for a debut writer to run amok toward her novel’s conclusion, especially when things begin to rip and roar, but Owen remains in control of the action to the end—which is particularly vital, as The Quick seems to be the beginning of something rather than a whole unto itself. Due to the fact that the first draft of the novel logged in at more than 1,000 pages, the publisher’s given us only the first half of the manuscript. So the sequel's more than in the works. Soon The Quick will hurtle into the 20th century, where it will apparently rise again, revivified. And I’ll be waiting.

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The Quick by Lauren Owen. Random House.

The Quick: A Novel

Erica Eisdorfer is the author of The Wet Nurse's Tale.