The Quick, by Lauren Owen

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 17 June 2014.

18050175Having finished reading Lauren Owen’s The Quick, the only conclusion I can actually make about it is that it has no center. By the end of the book, you’ll have met a mad Victorian scientist, a pair of orphans, vampires and vampire hunters, street children, politicians, lovers, and more. The style of The Quick runs the gamut of the Gothic, and you’ll get a taste of horror, family drama, and high adventure. All this happens in more than 500 pages, but there’s no anchor to the book.

Let me start at the beginning. Sometime in the 1870s, we meet the Norbury children. Charlotte, the older, cares for her younger brother, James, and helps educate him. Their widower father ignores them and only returns home to Aiskew Hall to die. James leaves for college, then moves to London in around 1889 or 1890. He falls in love with his roommate, Christopher Paige. When the two run away together to get away from Christopher’s family’s disapproval, they are attacked and Christopher is killed. As James bleeds to death, Owen whisks us decades back in time through Augustus Mould’s diary. Mould has been engaged by his friend, Edmund Bier, to make a study of the curious physical strengths and limitations of the members of the Aegolius Club. Though the word is not mentioned, it’s clear that the members are vampires. Owen shifts back to James a few times, as he lies dying and is later transformed, but mostly lets Mould tell the next large section of the story.

As Mould’s story catches up to the early 1890s, Owen lets street child turned vampire Liza show us how the other half of the vampires live. There is an alternately hot and cold war between the rich vampires of the Aegolius Club and the poor of Salmon Street. The poorer vampires came off the better in the last battle, though the richer vampires “police” the poorer so that none of them draw public attention. After Liza tells her part of the story, Owen returns to Charlotte Norbury. After Charlotte’s aunt dies and James fails to respond to her telegrams, she sets off to London to find him. At this point, Owen cycles through her narrators to tell the tale of the Aegolius Club’s experiment and Charlotte’s quest to find a cure for her brother. As the narrators change, the style of the story changes. This helps give the characters distinct voices, but leaves the overall story fractured.

The Norburys are a point of intersection for all the other characters. But because the brother and sister rarely meet and are working towards different goals, they don’t provide an anchoring point for the rest of the book. The Quick would have worked better for me if Owen had made one or the other the primary protagonist and told the story from their perspective—or mostly from that perspective. I wonder if Owen was trying for a Dickensian chorus, which multiple linked characters as narrators. If so, that attempt fails here. In Dickens, there is a single central character who ties everything together. Structurally, this book doesn’t work for me. But The Quick does have originality and a great ear for dialog to recommend it.

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