As promised, I have finally gotten around to covering David Liss' latest novel, The Twelfth Enchantment. I have yet to meet a Liss book I haven't liked, even if they are historical fiction, a sub-genre I have a hard time appreciating. The Twelfth Enchantment gives a different view of 19th century England that we won't find in anything by Austen or a Bronte...maybe Dickens.
The Situation: Lucy Derrick lives an incredibly miserable existence with her miserly uncle and his harsh and unforgiving serving woman, Mrs. Quince. After the death of her father and the marriage of her sister, Lucy is left with little connections to family and no money to survive on her own. If this wasn't bad enough, Lucy is also a woman with a compromised reputation as she attempted to run off with someone four years before. It would appear that Lucy has no choice but to enter into a less than desirable marriage with a local mill owner, as he has condescended to accept her as a wife, and her uncle would gladly have her out of his house.
The Problem: If all of that wasn't bad enough, Lucy's life is about to get much harder, and much more dangerous, when a troubled Lord Byron (yes, THE Lord Byron) shows up at her uncle's house, warning her against her impending marriage and charging her with a cryptic task. This task is one that Lucy only learns the meaning of after much searching and more than a few adventures. And eventually, she has more questions than she does answers. But she must solve all mysteries, and soon, for the very fate of England, as well as herself and her family, depend on it. It would all be difficult enough if a woman in Lucy's position had to deal with impossible human beings, but they are the least of her concern. There are witches, demons, goblins, ghost dogs, spirits, and even a giant man-eating tortoise...yes, a tortoise.
Genre, Themes, History: The Twelfth Enchantment is decidedly historical fiction. And I am usually wary of novels that use real public figures, past or present, in their fictional narratives, but Liss pulls this off well. Lord Byron plays a huge role in this story, and even William Blake makes a couple of appearances and is just as delightfully erratic and eccentric as we would expect him to be. General themes include magic, sacrifice, life and death, rules of society, inheritance laws, and social (as well as political) revolution. The novel takes place during a time when the Industrial Revolution is really starting to gain momentum in England, and in general, the lower classes are not too pleased about it. The larger conflict surrounding Lucy throughout the novel is between those who are ready to usher in the age of machines and industry, and those whose backs would actually break in order for that to happen. For machines to truly take over, not only would many jobs be eliminated, but the ones who would keep their jobs to work those machines would be overworked and underpaid. This is what Lucy finds herself in the middle of.
My Verdict: Once it gets going, and that doesn't take long, this book takes you on a serious ride. But sometimes, it felt like there was almost too much going on, like there was too much story...if the makes sense. And it wasn't necessarily the stuff about the magic that made me feel that way, but there are so many mysteries that Lucy comes across. Every chapter would uncover some new twist or discovery that would shock her and change her whole way of thinking. It definitely helps in keeping the reader entertained, but I found myself able to believe less and less of what was happening by the time the giant ravenous tortoise showed up. Still makes for a great story, but it could be a little too much sometimes.
Favorite Moment: Yep, I'll have to return back to the giant tortoise...I mean, it is just so ridiculous, but Liss made it so interesting and cool at the same time. And the reader can't say they weren't given fair warning before it happens...it is just so out there that I believe very few of us would have ever taken it seriously. I mean, it's a tortoise!
Favorite Character: Mrs. Emmett is one of those characters who, on the surface, is the most frustratingly useless person alive. But really, they turn out to be a very important piece in the journey.
Recommended Reading: I would recommend Davis Liss' The Coffee Trader. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, this book doesn't have half the mystery and adventure and magic as The Twelfth Enchantment, but it is still surprisingly enjoyable, and will hold your attention until the very end.