by G.W. Dahlquist
In Gordon Dahlquist’s own words this is a “deep, enticing, thick, layer cake of a novel that’s a mixture of HP Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes and Victorian pornography” so your first reaction is likely to be “Wow! Where do I sign?” but unfortunately this epic debut novel is both brilliant and infuriating in turns.
The story begins with our heroine, Celeste Temple a plantation heiress, recently arrived from the Caribbean to a city that feels something like 19th century London with a dash of Bruges or Amsterdam thrown in, to find a husband. When we meet her she is reeling from the news that her would-be suitor, Roger Bascombe a Ministry climber, has broken off their engagement with instructions that she never try to contact him again. However, rather than accept this news and move on, Celeste sets out to confront Roger and demand an explanation, a decision that pretty soon plunges her into a fantastic, frightening adventure that stretches from the seamy underbelly of the city to the highest echelons of polite society.
The story unfolds through the three main characters, but individually, allowing us to sample the same events from three different points of view, building the entirety of the complex plot and thus revealing it’s twists and turns.
It begins with Celeste trailing Roger to a masked ball at a grand country house where she witnesses ‘The Process’ being performed on a young prostitute for the delight of the assembled guests. She is soon revealed as an interloper to this private and very secret event and only just escapes the ordeal, and the house, with her life making it back to the train home where she is noticed by a curious man in a full-length red leather coat and dark glasses.
Enter Cardinal Chang, assassin for hire, and another attendee at the ball but for other, more ‘professional’, reasons. Hired to kill one Colonel Trapping, he is puzzling over why his work had already been done by someone else before he arrived when he sees the blood-covered Celeste enter the train. The rest of the chapter sees him first hired, then pursued by the cabal, ambushed in his own home and finally on the run from the authorities before deciding once and for all to find out who he must kill to stop this relentless persecution.
Chapter three introduces the third of our trio in Dr. Svenson, patriotic but unwilling companion to Prince Karl-Horst of Macklenburg, a rake and a fop who Svenson spends most of his time keeping out of the gossip columns. When the Prince is mysteriously abducted, Svenson affects a rescue, seeing Chang for the first time during his escape, only to have the Prince disappear again from under his nose. When challenged by others in the Prince’s entourage he realises his days are numbered if he stays in-situ, and is thus forced to flee for his life.
As the plot unravels and these three are thrown together and then pulled apart we are introduced to a truly vast cast of ingeniously named characters – Contessa Lacquer-Sforza, Comte d’Orkancz, Francis Xonck, Minister Crabbe, Lord Vandaariff – collectively described as the Cabal, who are using this mysterious ‘Process’ to gain control of influential members of society, leeching their minds of memories – particularly the risqué ones, which they store in books of blue glass for others to ‘experience’ rather than just read. Control of these people will lead to control, ultimately, of the world but in order to mine the indigo clay necessary for the process and for the books, the Cabal have to engineer a marriage between the Prince and Lord Vandaariff’s daughter, in order to gain mineral rights in the Duchy of Machlenburg, a country rich in this raw material.
A leading light of the faux Victorian fantasy genre that is currently in vogue, this is not a quick snack of a novel, it’s a sumptuous feast of steam-punk sci-fi and erotic mystery, beautifully written and rich in plot with characters, even peripheral ones, that exude depth and purpose. As you read each version of events, the stories intertwine deliciously with huge aha! moments going off in your head as you make the connections – an even more staggering feat when you consider it’s Dahlquist’s debut novel.
But there’s the rub. All of the elements that make this such a terrific read are also the very things that make it so infuriating. At 753 pages it’s way too long by at least 200 pages. Under scrutiny the plot is actually quite simple, made complex by florid descriptive passages that, while beautifully constructed, as often as not do nothing to move the story forward and by the use of so many characters that, while nicely rendered, are often quite clichéd, spending page after page spouting meaningless exposition in support of their own agenda.
Originally published as a series of 10 instalments in homage to the classic Victorian serialisations, I imagine the lucky buyers of each volume would easily be held in thrall while they recalled what happened in the last instalment and uncovered what might happen next, but when all 10 volumes are published as one full novel, some judicious editing should have been exercised to maintain the pace and flow. The worst culprit by far being the final chapter which repeats the same final battle over three locations, stretching credulity to its limit and taking an eternity to reach its conclusion.
But good writing is often its own reward and it’s impossible, once you start reading, not to be totally drawn-in to this world of horse-drawn carriages, brass and copper-tubed machinery, revolvers, cutlasses and dirigibles. The fighting and pursuits are not just numerous, but each is sustained over so many pages that it’s almost as exhausting for the reader as it is for the characters, and the ending, when it finally comes, cries out for a sequel (coming May 1st 2008 apparently).
Hard going at times but beautifully written, thoroughly engaging and lots of fun, it’s a book that ultimately rewards the intrepid reader.