Expanding on the historical landscape of her first novel, The Anatomist’s Apprentice, Tessa Harris brings to life 18th-century London with all of its knowledge regarding the brutality and bloodiness of surgical techniques and the sensibilities of those damaged both physically and psychologically by lost and hopeless dreams. Add the grisly dissecting rooms of London which desperately need cadavers, and
that the anatomists don’t really care how they come by them or who they are, and we have a world where feeding this insatiable appetite for the dead becomes a lucrative business for those with low enough morals and strange stomachs.
Colonist Dr. Thomas Silkstone
does his part to drive the medical community toward greater acquisition of the latest medical discoveries,
though he remains somewhat distracted by his love for Lady Lydia Farrell. Forced into a long and lonely winter without his beloved, with only her letters for comfort, and because “vicious tongues could wag once again,” hesitant Thomas
has yet to announce their betrothal so soon after Lydia’s husband’s untimely death.
In this ghostly tale of carnival “freak” shows and grave-robbers, a philistine Scottish doctor rejects the basic time-honored tradition of bloodletting and the notion that all illnesses stem from an “imbalance of bodily humors.” As mad Dr. John Hunter ponders the wonders of medicine in a world without disease and deformity, he knows the ability to control such forces will wield great power for him and his scalpel. Still, there are those in the medical establishment who feel that by embracing newfangled instruments and unproven hypotheses, Hunter is bringing their profession into disrepute.
As the list of grievances against Hunter grows, he sets his sights on an exotic Irish giant: the amazing Charles Byrne. Byrne is like storybook ogre, but he
is dying. Before he goes, Byrne is determined to find absolution for his father, who was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit.
As Byrne searches for a royal pardon to clear his father's name, Thomas renews his efforts to save the giant from Hunter’s scalpel while
trying to rescue his crumbling romance with Lady Lydia. When Lydia befriends Byrne and joins Thomas and Byrne’s friend and patron, the dwarf Count Josef Boruwlaski, in Byrne’s plan to protect him, the scenes are designed as pivotal moments, especially when Hunter attempts to execute his plan. Surrounded by the memorials and trappings of death, Charles is positive that beloved maid Emily will look after him and keep him safe from Dr. Hunter’s evil machinations, and that he won’t end up like his father: “a piece of meat to be cut and sliced on a dissecting table.”
Harris’s bracing tale raises our hackles and has us cowering at every bloody scene. Perhaps the most horrific
occurs in Hunter’s operating theater, when he unsuccessfully tries to remove a bladder stone with disastrous consequences. Harris makes the time and place come dazzlingly alive in all its sights and smells. The stench of decay and preserving fluid, “the smell of piss and horse dung” pervade many a street in a landscape of “dangerous talk and dangerous times”
as the Colonies, Ireland, and France are all breaking away from the old ways and “looking to new futures.”
From the “twisted and devious” Castrato Leonardo Moreno, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, to Hunter, who plays evil games with Byrne, taunting him just as a bully would in a schoolroom, to Lady Lydia, who without explanation breaks off her engagement to Thomas, to a viscious murderer who seems to have a terrible compulsion behind his actions, only kindly Byrne and Silkstone are held up as the moral paradigm due to their sweet natures and their ability to go out of their way for a friend or comrade. The villains
gravitate between being thoroughly reprehensible and slyly enigmatic. Hunter and his colleagues are admirably relentless
against the real criminal mastermind--a creative, devious, and ingenious lunatic.