Although I tried to appreciate this tale set in Victorian London where the undead live, I ultimately found the novel’s delivery to be clunky and overly long. Owen’s study of 19th-century life covers an era of interest, when certain men who where members of an exclusive club, in spite of their notoriety and questionable morals, were a particular lifeblood of English society.
The opening pages of The Quick introduce us to brother and sister Charlotte and James Norbury, who live a rather isolated life at Aiskew Hall. Apart from their frail maiden aunt, Mrs. Chickering, Charlotte and James have little contact with the outside world, choosing instead to spend their days playing among the Hall’s dilapidated gardens. James grows older, going off to her father’s school and then onto Oxford College. While he sees that he had always existed at a “quiet distance from reality,” he soon realizes that his secret yearning and illicit passion is to become a writer.
It is in London where a writer ought to live and where things will happen. Edward becomes a “flaneur,” wandering the streets and taking up residence in a flat not far from Paddington. London is commonplace and busy, encased in fog and the light of the dirty streetlamps: “it was as if the city where hiding itself, playing with him like a cat.” When James meets wealthy Christopher Paige, their unmistakable attraction is overshadowed by the haunted dread of “getting things wrong.” Even as James fears losing his new friend, “the love that dare not speak its name” dictates that their future will be complicated, perhaps even frightening.
Owen moves us between James and Christopher’s hidden misgivings to The Notebook of Augustus Mould and the machinations of The Aegolius Club, a secret organization for a certain type of creature. Here we learn of the Club’s founder, Edmund Bier and his illicit attacks throughout London. A man who is at once frightening, enigmatic, irresistible, Edmund holds dear to the promise that the Club feeds only on the worst of society.
The author sets James up perfectly: the sensitive young man, the mysterious Aegolius Club, James and Edward’s burning passion that neither can deny. This is the stuff of lust, fear, vanity, hypocrisy and hatred, unfolding in a little dance of a half-dozen footsteps. Londoners quake in the face of vampires roaming the streets of Southwark, drinking the blood of their victims. Here the dark superstitions of the Aegolius Club are passed by word of mouth. Charlotte eventually comes to London in search of her bother. Desperate to learn of James’ fate, she meets a couple who fanatically follow the club men and are intent to rescue their prey.
Owen is good at shrouding her mystery in the idiosyncrasies of Victorian repression, but the book’s length is just too distracting. The novel is a taxing read, with a surplus of secondary characters that do nothing to move the plot along. Although there are plenty of willing victims to rapture the Aegolius Club, all seem to get lost in a series of crazed, melodramatic and blood-soaked match-ups between the men of the Club and those who hunt them.