What could be more fun than a superpowers novel set in the Regency Era? That was a time when reality seemed much sillier and weirder even than the idea of select members of a population having superhuman abilities. The intersection of the two plot lines is very entertaining. (The author characterizes the book as a combination of historical fiction and paranormal adventure.)
The story takes place in 1812 in London, a year after George, Prince of Wales (known by the public as “Prinny”) began his nine-year tenure as Regent of the British Monarchy. [A prince regent is a prince who rules a monarchy in the place of a monarch who is still the titular king but has been deemed unfit for any reason, such as age, or physical or mental incapacity. In this case, the Prince of Wales was standing in for his father George III, thought to be mad. On the death of his father in 1820, the Prince Regent became George IV.] The Georgian era is a period in British history from 1714 to 1830, named eponymously after kings George I, George II, George III and George IV. The sub-period that is the Regency era is defined by the regency of the future George IV.
The Prince Regent
During this period, society was greatly stratified – the monied and shockingly idle upper class was preoccupied by birth, wealth, and parties, and was largely horrified by, and contemptuous of, the very large mass of the poor. Many of the desperate people in this latter group turned to begging, theft, or in the case of women, prostitution. The Church abjured them, excoriated their blatant practice of “immoral” behaviors (which the wealthy engaged in also, but in private so it didn’t count) and also preached that patriarchy and the servitude of women to men was God-given.
This was also the time that the “Bow Street Runners” acted as a police force in London, but there weren’t many of them. In fact, not nearly enough to deal with the existence of, according to this novel, a demonic horde called Deceivers, who were hidden in plain sight across the cities, towns, and villages of the world.
As one of the characters explains, “Only a small group of people stood in the way of this multitude and its insidious predation upon humankind” – i.e., The Dark Days Club. Henry Fielding, who in real life started the Runners, also, in this story, created a clandestine “brother organization” called the Dark Days Club to deal with the evil in the city not caused by human agency. Fortunately, there are some people born with special skills who can combat them and they are called Reclaimers. There are only eight such people in England, so they are assisted by a variety of helpers, who also swear fealty to the Dark Days Club. The Club is under the aegis of the Home Office, but unlike the Runners, not on the ledger; they do not officially exist.
As this story begins, we meet Lady Helen Wrexhall, who has just turned 18 and thus is coming into her Reclaimer powers. Helen has been alarmed at the recent changes in her – she feels a deep energy, an uncanny ability to intuit character by reading facial expressions, and more acute senses of hearing and smell. Her reflexes are faster and she can prognosticate. What was she?
She certainly can’t ask her aunt and uncle, who raised her and her older brother Andrew after their parents died in an accident at sea ten years before. Helen’s mother Catherine was rumored to be a traitor to the Empire in some way. Her aunt and uncle refuse to discuss their parents with them. Helen’s uncle, mentally abusive and viciously misogynistic, seems particularly to loathe even the memory of Catherine’s renegade mother. He is constantly exhorting Helen that “obedience is the cornerstone of femininity.” Any deviation from that path elicits verbal tirades and even physical violence from him, lest she turn out “like her mother.”
Helen doesn’t know anything about either the Reclaimers or the Dark Days Club; she is informed surreptitiously by William Standfield, the 26-year-old Earl of Carlston, who is handsome, mysterious, and the most powerful Reclaimer in the country. It seems Carlson has the answers to all of her questions, but it’s very hard to arrange to get out of the clutches of her aunt and uncle in order to meet up with him. Yet she feels she must know why she is different. It also happens that he is a quintessential romance novel “bad boy” – strong, attractive, magnetic, and yet flawed; moody, dark, masterful, with a mysterious past that gives him much pain. Who can resist?
Carlston has a reputation of being a possible murderer – his wife Elise went missing with a pool of blood in her wake. A body was never found, so Carlston was never charged, but the “ton” as the upper class was called then, is convinced he killed her. Thus he is regarded as scandalous and unwelcome in spite of his Earldom. Both Helen’s brother Andrew and Andrew’s best friend the Duke of Selburn loathe Carlston, apparently because Selburn was at one time in love with Elise but lost her to Carlston, and moreover she then met a grisly fate. Meeting up with Carlston seems hopeless, but thanks to the machinations of some well-placed Dark Days Club “helpers,” Helen and Carlston manage to rendezvous.
Cinematic depiction of a Regency Era ball – good spot for a rendezvous
Carlston explains to Helen about the Deceivers and their pervasiveness. They are evil spirits – some say from Hell, and others say they originated from our own hatreds and base natures. There are four types:
Pavors: feeds on physical and mental suffering and our most primal desire to stay alive
Cruors: feed on bloodlust and dominance
Luxures: seek out the climactic energy of sex
Hedons: seek to sustain themselves from the energy of art and creativity
They colonize human bodies and live at all levels of society, wherever their particular taste will be best satisfied. Worse yet, they look no different from “regular” people (without a special lens to detect them) so anyone could be a Deceiver. With a special device, however, one can see that they have different auras, and also they have feeder tentacles that grow from capturing energy from humans.
It is the duty of the Dark Days Club to keep them in check. As to why they are called Reclaimers, Carlston explains: “There is another talent that is, perhaps, harder to believe…. We are able to reach inside a person’s soul and remove darkness.”
Furthermore, the Dark Days Club and the Home Office have a pact with Deceivers:
“We do not want the world to know that they exist – imagine the panic – and they do not want to be discovered. There are too many of them for us to kill outright, and we could not do so without serious repercussions: a number of them are in very high positions. So if they stay hidden and minimize their supernatural activities, we leave them in peace. But if any of them act in ways that could bring their kind to the notice of the public, then we are sent in to stop them.”
It is, as Carlston explains, “a toleration of lesser evil to avoid an even greater evil.”
Needless to say, Helen feels like her world has been turned upside down:
“She stepped back. No, she was not built for battle. Nor was she some harbinger of evil. She was just a girl.”
Carlston tells Helen further that not only are their special abilities unusual, but Helen is even a more rare case – she actually inherited her talents directly from her mother. Inheritance is not the usual way a Reclaimer comes to have powers. It may signal enhanced powers, or may even be a harbinger, according to lore, of the advent of “The Grand Deceiver,” someone posing an even more horrific danger to mankind.
London slums in Georgian times – Ripe pickings for Deceivers
When Helen’s aunt and uncle took her in, they let Helen keep two little miniature portraits – one each of her mother and father, – as long as she didn’t display them. This turned out to be fortunate, because the miniature of her mother, Helen found out thanks to Carlston, has alchemical properties important to Reclaimers. It can let her identify Deceivers just by holding it in her hand. It may have other powers as well; Carlston admonishes Helen not to let it out of her sight.
Helen also learns that each Reclaimer must appoint a “Terrene” – a sort of dedicated helper. The Reclaimer bonds with the Terrene by blood, conferring some of the powers of the Reclaimer onto the Terrene. When a Reclaimer takes the energy from Deceivers having whips, it will stay within the Reclaimer’s body. The Terrene’s job is to get the Reclaimer in contact with bare earth in less than twenty seconds to discharge it, or it will render the Reclaimer insane.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Selburn is interested in Helen and wants to court her. Helen finds him amenable, but he is nothing like Carlston, whom she thinks of as commanding, enigmatic, disturbing, and of course, charismatically attractive. Can she choose a life with Selburn now that she knows what she is? Can she resist the appeal of
Mr. Darcy Carlston? Is he in fact a dangerous murderer? And will she accept the life she seems to be fated to live, one of danger, disguise, and huge responsibility?
Evaluation: I loved this book, and can’t wait for the next in the series to see what happens!
Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016
Aurealis Award Finalist (Young Adult Novel, 2015)
Aurealis Award Finalist (Fantasy Novel, 2015)
Bank Street CBC Best Children’s Book of the Year 2017