In an alternate nineteenth-century London, a young nurse is hurrying home with a strange potion hidden in her valise. A group of boys lurks on a corner, looking for a likely mark. A doctor fights against the growing monster buried within him. A young scientist, expelled from college, is working on scintillam vitae, the spark of life deep in his laboratory, while another, hired by the mysterious Consortium House, is searching for a test subject for his own occult studies. His last subject, a mad woman escaped into the streets of London, vanishing into the fog. The fog which, even now, has a greenish cast as something — something large, long-limbed, and angry — stalks along the dark and narrow streets.
What is the Consortium House? Why are they trying to buy Abby and Gideon’s free clinic where the two of them work as nurse and doctor? Who stole Nathaniel’s notes on the scintiliam vitae? Was it Jin, his mysterious lover who dresses as a woman? Was it his sister’s foolish friend, Bernadette — the same one he and and his sister have both taken as a lover? And who is the Fiend after? Who is it protecting, who does it want? And why can only a handful of people hear the lonely, plaintive calls of the dog — a dog no one has seen, a dog no one can find?
Somehow, all of these people will be drawn together to find the answers, and to find them quickly. For some it will lead to rapture, for others, ruination.
I chose this book for the Under the Rainbow Week in our Reading Challenge Month because of the premise — this dark and gothic moment in London where the infamous Jack the Ripper would soon begin his murder spree, a London where monsters both occult and mundane could lurk in every alley. And because it has genderqueer characters who don’t confirm to social norms, like Jin — aka Dr. Wylie — who prefers to dress as a woman, or Clyde, an adolescent who changes their outward gender depending on what’s needed — a boy when running the streets, a girl when slipping into posh houses for stealing. The story has lesbian women, bisexual women, as well as gay and bisexual men, all drawn together into a found family.
Unfortunately, the ideas promised by this book were buried beneath the execution. The story shifts between the points of view of nine characters … and yet, they all felt interchangeable, so instead of nine versions of one story, it felt like one character with nine names telling a clumsy, disjointed story. It’s as if one character picked up tonally and personality-wise where the last one left off. It makes for very tiring and frustrating moments where one character will instantly know the gender, the sexual preference, and/or the relationship status of another person within moments of meeting them. Characters fall in love with a handshake before words are even spoken, and trust implicitly someone they have no reason to trust. The plot is full of overly contrived plotting with every character converging at the same place at the same time.
The ending, where the monster is revealed and the cabal uncovered, feels lackluster and forced, with characters explaining for the reader what happened rather than the story itself letting the reader witness or experience the events. Then we’re told the bad guys are facing trial and punishment in the epilogue, as if it’s of no concern to the readers. And to be honest, that’s fine, because I felt zero investment in the characters at that point.
There was a moment in the very beginning where it felt like the small spark of an idea would grow into something, but it died quickly. There was a brief sentence where all of the characters knowing what every other character knew was almost given an in-world reason, but that, too, fizzled out into nothing. The writing is serviceable, but the world building is shallow and the characterization felt flat and lifeless. I suggest passing on this book.
This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for Under the Rainbow Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win a fabulous paperback book bundle from Carina Press (you can see the details on the bundle in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing Grand Prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review on our wrap up post on Friday! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on Under the Rainbow Week here.