David Liss, The Twelfth Enchantment
As a young woman of no fortune in 19th-century England, Lucy Derrick’s choices are extremely limited. Her parents are dead, so she is forced to live with her odious uncle and his cruel housekeeper. Her only means of escape is to accept the advances of a prosperous local mill owner, but she doesn’t love the man and has delayed making a final decision. But everything changes when Lucy encounters the dashing Lord Byron, the principal landowner in the area. Byron shows up on Lucy’s doorstep with a mysterious illness that is soon revealed to be magical in origin. To Lucy’s surprise, she is actually able to help him through exercising her own magical abilities. This chance encounter leads Lucy into a shadowy world whose existence she had never before suspected — a world of changelings and faeries and soulless beings who cannot die. Assisted by her friend Mary Crawford (of Mansfield Park fame) and by Jonas Morrison, the man who once broke her heart, Lucy must navigate a supernatural power struggle and find an ancient spell book that will vanquish her immortal enemies once and for all.
This was my first encounter with David Liss, and I think it’s probably not the right entry point into his work. My understanding of his other books is that they are serious historical fiction, with plenty of exploration of the gritty realities of life in former eras. This book contains a lot of those same concerns, with Luddites and Rosicrucians both being fairly integral to the plot. But at the same time, this novel also has a lot of Regency romance tropes, like the lovely but impoverished young woman who seeks marriage both for love and for economic stability. As a result, the book felt slightly schizophrenic to me. Personally, I was more interested in Lucy’s individual character development and her romantic relationships than in the broader power struggle, so everything about the aforementioned Luddites and Rosicrucians was a real slog for me. In other words, it’s too heavy for a light, fluffy read; but the Regency-romance elements detract from the serious historical fiction aspects of the book. Some things did work for me, particularly the central romance, but overall I think the book suffers from trying to blend two very different genres.