James Marshall has a knack for making friends in high places. His close acquaintance with Miss Cecelia Drummond lands him an indefinite stay at her seaside manor home. Leaving his comfortable city rooms behind, James sets out for the country. One challenge he didn’t anticipate was being master to a household full of servants who seem to find him more of a bother than a figurehead. Another is what to do with his valet, Theodore Garten. At least for the first few days, James is content to explore the town and nearby spas. James may not need help getting dressed, but Mr. Garten’s guidance around town is invaluable. And when something strange goes bump in the night, James turns to Mr. Garten for guidance.
As it turns out, Mr. Garten’s relations are rather closely involved with what James considers the occult. But if it helps them get to the bottom of the foul creature that prowls around James’ new abode, he’ll accept all the help he can get. With the help of Mr. Garten and his family, James uncovers the truth about what happened to the deceased Mr. Drummond. At the same time, they learn there is a sliver of a possibility of finding out what has become of Cecilia’s in absentia brother. Armed with information and the Gartens’ magic, James, Mr. Garten, and two others set out to capture the creature. Their plans hit a major snag when they realize not only is the creature sentient, but adamant about being free…using any means necessary.
A Curse of Blood and Water is a historical paranormal/fantasy story by author Laurence A. Clark. One of my favorite aspects of the story is the narration. Told in the first person from James’ perspective, I enjoyed his voice. To me, his narration strongly evoked a sense of upper middle class or peerage. He often took great care to err on the side of caution when discussing delicate topics and was keen to avoid any social faux pas. Even when grappling with the obvious fact that Mr. Garten’s family not only believed in magic, but seemed to practice it, James not only spoke about that (to James’ way of thinking) oddity in polite terms, but his own thoughts on the matter felt obligingly aloof. James’ voice just made me think he was the kind of character who is easy to like, but with some secrets (being gay) and convictions (about doing the right thing even if it’s inconvenient) that gave him a little backbone.
As much as I enjoyed the narration, I thought there was one drawback in how the characters are obliged to address each other–either as a function of perspective (James would hardly refer to himself in the third person) or station (referring to people in service by their generic title and surname, as in Mr. Garten). But it didn’t work so well for me for two reasons. First, sometimes I forgot who the narrator was. I actually highlighted a mention of “James” with a note of “who is this?” before remembering James is the narrator/MC. That was pretty wild considering that the book is basically James and Mr. Garten trying to discover who or what the monster creature is. Despite all the interactions James and Mr. Garten have on page and out loud, Mr. Garten almost exclusively refers to James as “sir,” as befits his role as servant.
The name erasure tied into the second stumbling block for me: a lack of personal names for the vast majority of the book really seemed to stifle any sense of connection or even camaraderie between James and Mr. Garten. Of course, I initially jumped at the thought of them getting together, but with the barrier of titles, I was more than halfway through before I got the inkling they might even come to regard each other as something more than employer and employee. Honestly, I didn’t feel like these two had much in the way of romantic chemistry. The longer they spend together hunting the monster, the more James comes to care for Mr. Garten, but it really felt like nothing beyond the gentlemanly concern James would have shown any friend. To compound the sense of emotional distance, Mr. Garten is shown to keep an extremely tight lid on his person at all times and we learn he was in a romantic relationship with Cecelia’s brother. All in all, I didn’t mind the hint that they might get along, but I never really got the sense that these two were falling for each other, more that they just both happened to be attracted to men and in proximity to each other.
That said, the will-they-won’t-they energy between James and Mr. Garten does very briefly come to the fore. As Mr. Garten and the others puzzle out what happened to Cecelia’s brother, Mr. Garten also learns his relationship with the man wasn’t quite (at all) what he thought it was. There are a few subtle clues in the story that nudge this idea along as well, especially a mean-spirited comment to Mr. Garten from someone close to him about his “moving on” with James. This cracks open the door for James and Mr. Garten to be a possibility. There is also a scene where Mr. Garten happens to catch James as he gives his old flame one last kiss for old time’s sake, after which Mr. Garten and James dance around the question of their attraction to men (if not specifically to one another). Still, on the whole, the romance is very subtle and very railroaded by their search for the creature and Mr. Garten’s own revelations about the man he thought he loved.
As far as structure goes, I thought the story was well planned out. Clark makes excellent use of the seaside setting as the monster being a water-based creature and Mr. Garten’s family is in the fishing business with magic on the side. The supporting cast of characters also weave in and out of the plot. Of course, they push things along, build anticipation or suspense, but they also often tie directly into the action. My only real gripes with the flow of action and pacing are this: so much of the tension and excitement comes from the puzzle of who or what the terrible creature is, but the climax doesn’t lead to and end with a big reveal and tidy aftermath. It flounders away from the creature itself to resolve the story with Cecelia in her city-based home away from the sea. Perhaps it was necessary, but I wasn’t a fan of the MCs leaving the seaside (THE central location for the book) to check up on Cecelia (an important cog in the interpersonal relationships of the characters on page, but not really a substantive character to the plot). The one other small criticism is that so much of the book felt very measured. Events unfolded leisurely and with lots of description and basically set dressing thrown in to cement the time, place, and mood of the story. After the big confrontation with the creature is under control, the MCs rush off to Cecelia and that whole last bit of the book has a bit of a perfunctory tone to it. I just didn’t find the wind down to the happily-ever-after ending as engrossing as the main book.
Overall, I thought this was a good read. I loved the historical elements and thought the speech and narrative voice did a fantastic job evoking a sense of times gone by. James was a delightful character; I really enjoyed how kind he is and how down-to-earth. Mr. Garten was a bit of a black box and a bit of a stretch as a romantic interest for James, but then this was not a star crossed lovers kind of story, so the rather muted attraction between James and Mr. Garten fit their situations well. If you like period stories, I think you’ll enjoy this book. I think this is also a great read for anyone who wants a very little romance, but still wants identifiably LGBTQ characters and identities, or readers who aren’t fond of on-page intimacy (the most you’ll get is a few kisses).