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The Peculiarities by David Liss (book review)

September 7, 2021 | By | Reply More

Another century is dawning and London is seeing the birth of a new age. The steam and industry of the 19th century have fuelled the British Empire across the known world and London is its beating heart. But beneath the success there is something the newspapers aren’t reporting but everyone is whispering about: the Peculiarities. Women giving birth to litters of rabbits. Decaying bodies dressed in elegant evening wear murdering prostitutes. Fog that enters buildings in tentacle-like wisps to strangle whoever they encounter.

Thomas Thresher doesn’t know what to think about these rumours, but he is inclined to believe them as he’s begun to sprout leaves. Thomas’ quest to avoid becoming a tree will lead him to places and people he would never have expected. With the woman he definitely isn’t going to marry, the mystical order of the Golden Dawn, Alistair Crowley and a tarot reading werewolf, Thomas will uncover a conspiracy that has been growing around him and threatens the entire world.

‘The Peculiarities’ follows Thomas Thresher, a rich, white English man at the end of the 19th century. A time when anyone other than a rich, white, preferably English male was lesser. The privileged white males in ‘The Peculiarities’ are very even-handed in their disdain for anything that isn’t just like they are. Therefore, this book contains sexism, racism, classism and anti-Semitism. It was, as they say, the fashion of the time and that does not make it right or comfortable to read. Thomas does struggle against his education and the prevailing sentiments of his peers so the story isn’t just a white man coming to save the day and maintain stereotypes but name an -ism and it’s probably there.

Uneasy as any foray into historical prejudices is, there’s one scene that had me putting the book down in disbelief as it was sudden, unexpected and unnecessary. This scene includes an attempted sexual assault and references another. Nothing is lingered over or focused upon but it is enough to cause alarm and might be triggering to some readers. The perpetrators of the assaults are also victims, cursed by the Peculiarities into wild excesses of satyromania and nymphomania that the dictionary definition of ‘excessive sexual desire’ does not seem adequate to encompass. Our protagonist is not even present for the majority of the incident and only hears about the other second-hand. The lurid attention to detail does nothing to further the plot. Perhaps it might highlight the horrors of the Peculiarities and the disregard that many of the privileged have for the labouring masses but if zombie killers in formal wear roaming the slums doesn’t say that, what does?

That uncomfortable couple of pages aside, the rest of the novel paints a beautifully awful picture of London at the turn of the century. It’s an era that is beloved of supernatural fiction writers. It is the time of Sherlock Holmes and the rise of science and industry against superstition and folklore. The HBO TV series ‘The Nevers’ is set in a similar time period and shares the idea of the supernatural appearing in London, especially amongst marginalised groups. While ‘The Nevers’ and ‘The Peculiarities’ share many themes and a time period the TV show is much more action packed with daring feats. ‘The Peculiarities’ more closely resembles Susannah Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell’ with an historically based, ritual magic practice organised and directed primarily by scholars with large libraries rather than an intrinsic power that has sorcerers throwing cantrips at a whim.

Thomas Thresher is the personification of cluelessness as he lurches from one clue to another as the pawn of multiple agencies. He is affable enough for a young man whose main complaint is enforced idleness and boredom. The group of characters that forms around him are much more dynamic and Thomas’ role as de facto leader of the investigation doesn’t quite ring true. Alistair Crowley is too dissipated to exert himself with too much energy. The lupine tarot reader is an excellent oracle off to one side of the main story. But aside from these, we have a woman that could be a wonderful protagonist, Thomas’ forced fiancée, Esther. As much of a pawn as Thomas, Esther actually undertakes an investigation of her own before joining up with Thomas. I would have loved to have the story split between these characters to add some energy to Thomas’ lucky flailing and earnestness.

Fellow devotees of the late Victorian period might be divided over Liss’ portrayal. As dark and as brooding as the cobblestone alleys are in many fictionalised versions of London, the overwhelming reality of prejudice in ‘The Peculiarities’ might bring harsh truths to a setting that is often great fashion and epic adventure. Fans of more literary historical fantasy, such ‘Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell’ or Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus’ might find David Liss’ first fantasy novel worth a look.

LK Richardson

September 2021

(pub: Tachyon Press, 2021. 336 page enlarged paperback. Price: $17.95 (US), £12.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61696-358-3)

check out website: www.tachyonpublications.com

Category: Books, Fantasy

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