Valyruh’s CBR#4 Review #33: The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss
I’m afraid this book marked the end of the road for me with regard to Liss’ books, which is truly unfortunate because I so enjoyed his first several works of historical fiction, with their brilliant depiction of the flavor of 17th century Europe. His last–and unexpected–venture away from the historical fiction genre, The Ethical Assassin, was unsuccessful, I thought (see my review #32), but his newest The Twelfth Enchantment was, to put it plainly, a dud.
This book takes place in early 1800s London, and Liss returns to the historical mystery genre—or so I thought–by centering his plot on the clash between the advance of industrial capitalism—with all of its exploitative and inhumane aspects—and the Luddite Movement determined to protect artisan labor and the living standards of the working poor by destroying the mills and their expanding investment in technology. This conflict should have offered a creative writer like Liss ample material for a thrilling historical mystery and yet he flubbed it so badly that I was sort of embarrassed for him.
To his credit, Liss attempted to write his novel for the first time from the perspective of his female protagonist, the young and pretty Lucy Derrick who has suddenly lost her father, her inheritance and her home and is forced to live in the restrictive and hostile environment of her uncle’s gloomy house in Devonshire, England. Shades of Jane Austen. Her uncle and his housekeeper, the mysterious Mrs. Quince, are determined to marry Lucy off to the dour and unappealing mill owner Mr. Owens. With her sister and hateful brother-in-law now occupying the ancestral home and her uncle unwilling to support her further, it would appear Lucy has no choice but to succumb to a loveless marriage. Suddenly, George Gordon Byron—yes, the infamous Lord Byron—shows up at Lucy’s uncle’s doorstep with mysterious words for her and bearing a curse which Lucy miraculously discovers she can banish. Her proclivity for magic is a surprise to Lucy, and she begins to encounter a variety of mysterious and shadowy figures all of whom seem to consider her the central figure in a life-and-death battle over the future of England … and, one supposes, the world.
Byron is the first unexpected romantic entanglement that Liss throws in Lucy’s path, and it is a rather ridiculous plot driver that is only made more absurd by her awkward musings throughout the story over whether to protect her already slightly tarnished reputation by denying the gorgeous and willing Byron, or to plunge ahead into becoming one of his many sexual conquests. The fact that he is presented variously as a cad, a rapist, demonically possessed and a zombie hardly seems to factor into her considerations.
Another historical figure, the poet and printmaker William Blake, also conveniently shows up in Lucy’s life, and it is hard to tell whether Liss means him as a father figure, a mentor, a medium for Lucy’s dead father, or all three. The Rosicrucians make their appearance as well in the battle against the Luddites, as do faeries who take the form of the reborn dead and are the driving force behind Liss’ increasingly convoluted plot. Magical formulas and potions are scattered throughout the book, and one is never sure whether Lucy is talking to a fellow magician, a ghost, a faerie, or a zombie. The plot moves quickly and fantastically through many wild twists and turns, to a climax which is as neatly sewn up as it is unbelievable, involving ghost dogs, giant homicidal turtles (I kid you not!), ghoulish changelings, and of course the 12 enchanted pages which Lucy is tasked to collect before the bad guys get their mitts on them. I could go on, but why bother. Liss is great at creating ambience, as always, but his mastery at writing a good mystery novel appears to have vanished.
I like a good fantasy as well as the next one, but I also like to keep my historical fiction separate from my regency romances separate from my ghost stories. Liss managed to combine all three, and ruin them all. Oh well.