A third favourite for the year! (I was marvelling at how good a run I’ve had lately with excellent books until I remembered I’ve already stopped reading two books this year and realised how well my new 50-page rule is working to free me up for better reading.)
In an imaginary city quite a lot like foggy London, in an imaginary time not dissimilar from the late Victorian era, a sinister science experiment is unfolding, drawing in senior government figures, rich industrial magnates, and powerful lords and royals.
Three unlikely heroes plunge head-first into the dangers and wonders of this mysterious under-world that encapsulates the classic Frankenstein-style fear of the dawning scientific and technological age.
Wealthy young lady Miss Temple has been thrown over by her fiancé. Entirely peeved by the lack of explanation, she undertakes to discover his reasons, and follows him as he journeys out to the country seat of a wealthy new-made lord. The train journey is surreal and menacing; her evening doesn’t get much better from there, as she is mistaken for one of the few in-the-know parties, runs afoul of a truly great female villain, and escapes assault and murder in feisty but satisfyingly realistic fashion.
Cardinal Chang, a scarred killer-for-hire, picks up the story next. Neither a churchman nor a Chinaman, he’s hired, by the beautiful and deadly woman of the night before, to find the lady-spy who gate-crashed the party (our Miss Temple, of course) – but he was there too: he’d been hired to kill an officer and was surprised to find the man already dead by unknown means and unknown persons. Caught by curiosity, and hunted by black-uniformed soldiers, he battles adversaries and dodges traps while he falls ever deeper into the conspiracy.
Our third hero is an innocent like Miss Temple, an officer-surgeon for a small German principality who has lost the prince he is supposed to be babysitting. Chang watched him rescue the drunken fool the first time, but shortly after Doctor Svenson takes over the narrative, he’s carelessly lost the prince for a second time. As he endeavours to track his ward down again, he too meets the viperous villainess and is exposed to the ever-growing mystery of the Process and its effects.
Through pure accident, all three characters meet at the Boniface Hotel and quickly discover their affinity. “A man like me,” says Chang. “A woman covered in blood…A man brazening his way into and then away from a pack of enemies with a pistol. I think there was, [in the instant of meeting]…recognition.” Linking up, they resolve to expose the conspiracy and uncover the mystery at the heart of the Process and the blue glass as the narrative continues to rotate through each point of view over ten chapters.
It’s an endlessly fascinating tale – the action never lets up (the whole book takes place over less than three days) and the suspense and mystery are maintained beautifully throughout, along with a dose of erotica and a touch of romance. Attention and close reading is rewarded: through each elegantly designed and plotted chapter, names are put to character descriptions, the factions and backstabbing intrigues within the nefarious cabal become clearer, the Process and its functions and related procedures is enticingly revealed inch by inch.
But the three lead characters are the novel’s greatest strengths; all three are charismatic leads, real and flawed and ridiculously stubborn. Together, they play off each other’s strengths; separated (as they are for most of the book, and a lot of the fun is coming across the chaos the other two are causing from each point of view), they simply – and to the increasing exasperation of the wide cast of evil-doers – will not give up. I was especially glad to see not only a strong-but-realistic female lead, but a whole array of sexy and sinister female villains.
The book’s website is here and you can read Dahlquist’s comments on its serial nature here. I can’t wait to see these characters again – lucky I don’t have to, since the sequel, The Dark Volume is already out.
Dahlquist has written several plays before turning to novels, and is also an expert at the sort of government conspiracy portrayed in Glass Books if you can believe this snippet. He doesn’t seem to have a website. Supposedly Glass Books has been optioned for a movie by Johnny Depp’s production company and I just see Mr Depp in the red leather coat, dark glasses, and sword-stick of Chang’s costume.
Interested? Buy it from Fishpond.com.au All their prices are guaranteed better than Amazon.