Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lucy Derrick is a bad judge of character

The Twelfth Enchantment
by David Liss

At the age of 20, Lucy Derrick is a sadder but wiser girl. The last few years have been terrible. When she was just 16, she made an error in judgment. She eloped very briefly with Mr. Jonas Morrison, but returned before anything untoward could happen between them. Unfortunately, her family suffered more than a scandal, because in the brief time that she was gone her beloved eldest sister died suddenly, followed a year later by her father. That left only Lucy and her older sister Martha, who sacrificed her own happiness to marry the male cousin who had inherited their home. But after the wedding, he turns Lucy out of the house. As the novel opens, she has been forced to accept the reluctant charity of a cold uncle and his abusive servant.

Does this sound more like a Jane Austen novel than your typical fantasy? It should. Novelist David Liss is well-known for intricately researched and plotted period thrillers. Here he turns his talents to something different from what we’ve seen in the past. Regency England is rendered in fine historical detail, and Lucy Derrick is the young woman that Austen’s disgraced Lydia Bennett might have matured into. But there is an even more direct link to the work of Jane Austen. One of The Twelfth Enchantment’s main characters is pulled straight from the pages of Mansfield Park.

Further, this is the first time that Mr. Liss has delved into the fantastic, and it doesn’t take long for things to get strange. Lucy is being forced into an unhappy marriage with a wealthy mill owner, Mr. Olsen. One evening a beautiful, disheveled stranger comes to her uncle’s door shouting Lucy’s name. As he collapses, he pronounces, “You must not marry him!” It quickly becomes apparent that something very extraordinary ails this man. He is cursed. So begins a new chapter in Lucy’s life. She discovers there is more to the world than she ever knew—and more to herself. Lucy is saucier, stronger, and far more talented than anyone suspected.

With the help of her new acquaintance, Mary Crawford, Lucy cures the stranger of his curse. It turns out that he is none other than Lord Byron, and he is not the only historical figure to play a role in the story. The novel has a lengthy set up. There is a large cast of characters; a time, place, and system of magic to be established; and in true Liss style, a larger socio-economic component to the tale. Liss’s characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and this was a pivotal period in British history, with industrialization taking a foothold and changing a way of life.

I can feel this review wanting to spiral out of control. I took a ridiculous number of notes and quotes as I read this novel because it is, in a word, substantive. There is a whole lot going on here, on so many levels! Janeite that I am, I absolutely LOVED the homage to her work. As you might suspect, there is a strong romantic component to this tale, and the dashing Lord Byron is only one of Lucy’s charismatic and inappropriate suitors. There is also a delightful vein of comedy balancing heavier elements of the story. As a fantasy fan, I enjoyed the system of magic and the quest that Liss constructed. It did add a little sumpin’ sumpin’ that Austen never had. And as a Liss fan, I appreciated the complexity and intelligence of the tale being told. I never feel that I have to work as I read his novels, but I will admit to hitting Wikipedia more than once to satisfy my own curiosity. I love that his novels awaken my curiosity!

More than anything, Mr. Liss is telling a good story. I joked above that Lucy Derrick is a bad judge of character. Well, so am I, because there were enough secrets, twists, reversals, betrayals, and shocking revelations to keep me constantly guessing and turning the pages late, late into the night. And when I reached the end in record time, I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.

NOTE: For more info on The Twelfth Enchantment, please view a 10-minute interview with the author here.

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