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Christmas is a Time for Victorian Diabolists

I hope this message in the aether thrown into the darkness of the blogosphere finds all of you well – well-fed, well-rested, and well-done with all the things that diminish your greatness. I have not mentioned the delightful series of novels of Molly Tanzer, in part, because it’s hard to figure out the right time to discuss Victorian England, a place as much a mythology, now, as the Old West. We have invented a whole new version of the Victorian Period in London, and it is remade and remade until the backdrop fades into a sort of set-dressing that’s hard to use well, and even harder to make new. The costumes and the social mores and the dirty, crowded streets of London often play out class struggles and romances that are as predictable as they are echoes of a diminishing collective memory of a time and place where great social struggle was simmering to boil over just past the narrative horizon. To say I am disappointed with the majority of the presentations of this period and place would be fair. In this, then, I praise Molly Tanzer for producing a vision of the British Empire that feels new, and also familiar. The gothic aspect of the demon that is cultivated and merged with living men and women is at once an interesting take on ideas of communal living, social class, and identity. The demonic presence unites people into a cross-class secret society that hearkens to the best of Victorian horror. The art and sensual nature of the creature opens up the text with beautiful descriptions of beautiful things and the beautiful, elegant people that consume them. But, the best part of the text is not the demon. The sisters that carry the novel, Evadne and Dorina Gray, are perfect foils. Evadne is twice compared to Athena for her martial prowess as a fencer and stern nature approaching her thirties as a spinster, while Dorina is a beautiful and sensual lesbian approaching eighteen with the desire to experience as much ecstasy as is available. They go to visit their uncle, a famous artist, and stay with him in London. Basil has just lost the love of his life, and is grieving too much to be a good host, if he is even capable of it on a good day as a working artist. His friend, the sister of his lost love, takes the two girls under her wing, in her way.

Of course, she is a Diabolist, and leader of a sensual club wherein committed members consort with demons in secret to expand their life’s sensations and experiences with this phantom presence that hides inside their mind, feeding them information and special gifts. The sisters fight, of course, and their conflict takes on greater significance when the presence of the demonic club means that the conflict suddenly contains life or death consequences at a distinct turn, when the luxurious background presence of demonology, takes on a sudden and unexpected significance. This is an earned twist, well-set-up in the text, and leads to a showdown of blood and ritual violence. Fortunately, the series continues, and I recommend following it for this fascinating window into a world that feels like it could very well be true, hidden under the surface of Victorian England.

If there was a gift card under your Christmas Tree, I have offered you a perfectly acceptable thing to use it, but there are more treasures and surprises than any one life can consume. We live in an age of plenty. The arts surround us. I can only wonder what a diabolist of such a sensual master would find in a world of so much sensory overload.

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Categories: Book Reviews

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