The book blurb doesn’t have it quite right: “Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien…”
No, no, no. Nicholas Valiarde is a classic comic-book dark hero. He has a secret persona; to the respectable world he is the adopted son of a noble hung for necromancy (naturally, he was framed), but in the underworld, he is Donatien, master thief. Like all dark heroes, he has a mission of vengeance–his is against the unscrupulous Count Montesq, the man who framed his father. He’s a bit obsessive about his goal and at one point, pauses to weigh public interest against his quest for retribution. He is assisted in his pursuit by a team with dark pasts: Reynard, a disgraced soldier; Crack, accused murderer and man of few words; Cusard, elderly master thief; Arisilde, sorcerer with an addiction problem; and Madeline, a stage actress (I kind of suspect Wells of making a point here–either Madeline was slumming or she’s implying something about acting).
As Viliarde is robbing a house as part of an elaborate plan to orchestrate Montesq’s downfall–because a simple murder is too easy–he and his crew discover someone has been at the scene before them and left a ghoul. Later that night, an ominous golem appears at his estate, sent by a spiritualist of suspicious origins. In an effort to learn more, the crew infiltrates an estate to attend a seance led by the spiritualist. Adventures continue, but since that’s only the first sixty pages, I hate to add any more at the risk of spoilers. Suffice to say that it’s a great deal like Robert Downey Jr.‘s version of Sherlock Holmes with as much action as introspection, and a fondness for disguises.
The world and culture sounds a great deal like 19th century London, so it is easy to immerse in the story. There are coaches, lanterns, tenements and opium addictions. There are references to people educated at the sorcerer’s college in
London Lodun, and Persian Parscian rugs. The various magic systems are not entirely explained–sorcerers, witches, and necromancers–and references are made to the Fay and the Unseelie Court. Since necromancy is the most pertinent of the magic systems, it is explained well enough, and we get tantalizing glimpses of the rest. Characters are done well, and I give Wells a note of applause for having an alternate-sexuality supporting character without making it an issue, and for having a lead female with appropriate pluck and cleverness, and the ability to convincingly cross-dress. Evilness was nicely divided between the human and the supernatural, and provided plenty of tense moments, particularly in (of course) the sewers.
While the plot is brisk and the tone is serious, Wells seems willing to poke a little fun at her revenge-obsessed hero. I chuckled a few times at her sly humor:
Arisilde was on his hands and knees…”let’s see where this goes. I love secret tunnels, don’t you?”
“My back’s bad,” Cusard said quickly.
Lamane immediately asserted that his back was bad, too.
“He (Nicholas) should be grateful to them for destroying the great Inspector Ronsarde, something that he had never been able to do…. He wasn’t grateful, he was homicidal. It wasn’t enough that they endanger his friends and servants, they had to attack his most valued enemy as well.”
Dialogue is pleasantly snappy at times, with Reynard trading barbed witticisms, and Madeline sassing an elderly lady, but without characters becoming so enamored of their wit that they stop to trade one-liners with Evil. I enjoyed Wells writing style and found it sophisticated enough to maintain engagement, but not so ponderous that I lost interest. One of the underlying plot points is an interesting extrapolation of the classic detective-criminal meeting, and I was impressed that the writing made it seem possible.
Small things prevented this from five stars, including a couple of small moments that felt a bit deus ex machina later in the story. Still, it’s one that I’d consider adding to the library, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Note: nominated for a Nebula.
“Could you be any less forthcoming? Nicholas wanted to ask, but he reminded himself that he was avoiding a quarrel.”