Book Review: Creatures of Will & Temper by Molly Tanzer

“[Tanzer brings] the setting to life through wonderful descriptions, while also weaving in the elements that make for an engaging and enthralling paranormal thriller.”

 

Her first novel, Vermilion (Word Horde, 2015) was an io9 and NPR Best Book of the Year, while her debut collection, A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist Press, 2012) was nominated for the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book Award. Molly Tanzer is clearly a name that ought to be more widely known. It is clear from the briefest of glances at her bibliography that she enjoys writing in a historical setting. However, even if historical fiction isn’t your usual genre, it is important to bear in mind that it is simply a setting; Tanzer’s gift for storytelling will soon pull you into the story, no matter when or where it is set. As is evidenced by her latest novel, where she offers a “fantastic variation” on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, taking the basic outline of the classic tale and creating something entirely new and refreshing.

The characters at the centre of Tanzer’s story are sisters Evadne and Dorina Gray, living the simple life in the English countryside village of Swadlincote with their parents. But there is nothing simple about either of the siblings, or indeed their relationship. Evadne, the elder sister, longs for a simple life as the wife of the object of her affections, fencing partner Freddie. But, while her no-nonsense approach and strong character make her a great friend and formidable fencing partner, her lack of feminine grace means that Freddie does not view her as a potential wife. This is made all-to-clear when, after a fencing session, he insists that he introduce Evadne and her family to his fiancée. While Freddie describes Evadne as being like “Athena”, a strong warrior, he describes Dorina as “Aphrodite”. Indeed, it seems that the younger sister’s physical beauty has caught the eye of many of the local boys. However, as Evadne has long suspected, and it is shown in the opening chapter, Dorina prefers the company of women. She is seemingly the perfect example of a beautiful woman, in the eyes of the society at the time, yet she rebels against their expectations in this way. And it is this revelation, made by the recently hurt Evadne, that sets this exciting story in motion.

While Dorina’s visit to London to document and study the work of her artist uncle Basil Hallward to further her education as an art critic is allowed to proceed, her mother does not trust her to go alone. To the despair of both sisters, Evadne is tasked with the role of chaperone. Dorina is excited about the possibilities presented by city life, the art and culture. But Evadne sees it as an inconvenience, not to mention the injustice of Dorina evading punishment. This only serves to exacerbate the rift between the sisters.

When they arrive in the big city, they experience different horizon-broadening adventures. While they both love their uncle, they come to shake off the confines of country life and embrace the hustle and bustle of the city, Evadne finding purpose in the all-male Westminster Fencing Academy where she soon proves her worth, while Dorina soon ingratiates herself with uncle Basil’s friend and confidante, Lady Henrietta “Henry” Wotton. It is clear from the outset that Henry also prefers the company of women, and she is quite taken with Basil’s niece, despite Basil’s objections. While we may at first believe that Basil’s feelings on the matter are simply “a product of the time”, we later discover that his reasons are more serious and have more to do with the mysterious events leading to the death of Lord Oliver Wotton, Basil’s lover and Henry’s brother, as well as the subject of Basil’s latest masterpiece.

While Dorina feels that she has found a place where she belongs within Henry’s inner circle, Evadne grows closer to her fencing teacher, George Cantrell. But little do the sisters know that their respective friendships will lead to a confrontation with consequences not only for the sisters, but for the world. For in Tanzer’s intricately designed Victorian England, not only are there demons and diabolists (such a beautiful word), there are also those that would hunt the demons and their followers. And when Evadne and Dorina are forced to choose a side, their relationship becomes even more fractious.

Tanzer’s exploration of the characters and their interaction with each other is masterful. Even characters that don’t spend a great deal of time at centre stage (such as Jonas or Mr. Perkins) are fully-developed and play their part. Despite the book’s length, not a word is wasted. Tanzer has done more than recreate Victorian-era London as it is seen in many historical novels. She has a seemingly broad knowledge of the age, bringing the setting to life through wonderful descriptions, while also weaving in the elements that make for an engaging and enthralling paranormal thriller.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Mariner Books
ebook: (368pp)
Release Date: 14 November 2017

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