Filled with grandiloquence, Liss's chaotic, beautifully written tale explores the delicate social balance of Regency England while also dazzling us with magic in the form of an ancient book that holds the healing powers of the dark arts. Into this seething milieu comes orphaned Lucy Derric,k who must rescue her embattled sister Martha from the clutches of her mercenary husband.
Lucy must also find a way to escape from her cruel Uncle Lowell and his nasty servingwoman, Mrs. Quince, “once handsome but now faded in both beauty and color, her last charms vanishing.” Lucy is wise to submit herself to the
grim ministrations of the older woman, who is ever-solicitous to Mr. Olsen’s connections with Lucy and of a marriage proposal that must be honored.
Living off a small annuity resentfully provided Martha’s husband, the horrid clergyman Mr. Buckles, Lucy has been tumbling through one disaster after another, leaving an unrecognizable tangle of dread in the fabric of her life.
It all begins with her own act of foolish defiance: her elopement and her uncle’s accusations that she played “the slut” and destroyed his health with her scandals.
Lucy’s situation is tenuous at best, her staggering injustices put to the test when she meets respectable gentlewoman Mary Crawford. With just a hint of cleverness, Mary
- the only person in recent years who projects a feeling of warmth of friendliness in Lucy’s life
- tells her that “there are dark things in this world” as her mind combines in shadow, smoke and fear. A formless chimera is created: a strange man who vomits pins and another on Mary’s bed who radiates “dangerous warmth.”
Fleshing out the history of the period, Liss laces his story with supernatural elements. Intrepid, heroic Lucy is gripped in cold fear and panic
when Lord Byron comes to Lucy, supposedly under a curse to demand she not marry
Mr. Olsen. Against this background, the streets of Nottinghamshire are indeed
haunted by luckless men - hulking and impoverished Luddites, “malcontents and brutes”
- hard-bitten laboring men, out to destroy the machines depriving them of work.
Insubstantial creatures seethe and pulse. Lucy is haunted by creatures with flickering tails and vile teeth that rise from their open mouths only “to dissipate like smoke.” A colorful mix of heroes, villains and thugs shape Lucy's world even as she enters a
strange new land of duplicity. Like Jane Austen's plucky heroines, Lucy searches for love, albeit amid curses and potions and beings made of darkness.
From the mysteries of a forged will to spells that coerce love, loyalty, and compliance, to the infamous Mutus Liber - the images of the book swirling together - romance combines in what is essentially a political thriller. It's just a pity that Liss’s delicate balancing act often gets bogged down in a surfeit of action and stereotypical set-pieces.