It's almost impossible to credit this book as a debut novel, the writing is so polished and assured. I loved it with a fierce and unrestrained love while I was reading it but the qualifier is that it was a two a.m. kind of passion, which is something bitter experience teaches you to be wary of.
Still, I woke up this morning and went over bits of it again and still had to physically restrain myself from licking my iPad screen so I'm going with my initial reaction. It really is a joy to read. There's a smooth, linear narrative, a firm hand with character development, the pacing is impeccable and the sex is so fucking hot I don't even know what.
The author will probably be bracing themselves for casual throwaway allusions to Susanna Clarke and while I don't think the comparison rewards too much scrutiny, the gentle social comedy in Clarke's work does seem to have an echo of sorts in this book. So does the use of the anti-hero (with the caveat that Crane's coming of age couldn't be more different, thematically or structurally, than Jonathan Strange's) and the deep bones of the alternative universe set up here: magic and practitioners and their prosaic, everyday functions. Still, toss a coin into the Victorian AU pot and you'll probably hit all those things nine times out of ten so I don't think Charles is being derivative in any way (by the by and in case it ever comes up, I don't really care if it turns out this started life as a fanfic. I don't think anyone should.).
The author's voice is practically flawless, and the writing crackles with just the right balance of dry wit and tender detail. Consider this, describing the protagonists' approach to Crane's house:There was an extremely old carriage waiting for them at Lychdale station. ... Stephen grabbed the edge of the seat as the coach began to move. “Is this thing not sprung?”
“No. Absolutely nothing in this place is conducive to comfort,” said Crane. “The house is decaying, the furnishings are museum pieces, half the staff are consumed with loathing of me out of loyalty to my father, or because I remind them of my brother. In any case, they’re people who lived in the same house as Hector when there are perfectly good ditches to die in, which tells you as much as you need to know...”
Crane and Stephen are both wonderfully written, distinct characters. It takes skill and dexterity to write a comedy of manners with two sympathetic personalities, but the author does it with grace and no small amount of style. Crane and Stephen complement each other perfectly, both taking on and shrugging off the burden of wit as and when the need overtakes the narrative without causing any tension to their personalities.
If I have any criticism of the book, it's that it ventures just a touch too far into the AU part of AU. I didn't get a particularly strong sense of the era (though the way magic fit into it was detailed enough), which would have grounded the book a little more, I think. As it stands it's wild and wonderful, but with so little to throw it into relief to me it sank just the tiniest bit under the weight of its own imagination. Not that I would change any of it for anything! I just hope there's a little more society in the next book; I think the story needs the contrast.
A blindingly good read. I was vibrating with happiness after the first read; I suspect I'll be in the same sorry way for many readings to come yet. The author is obviously headed for big things -- or at least I hope they are. Books like this should be descended on and grabbed at with grabby hands. I can't wait for the next one.