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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The best historical mysteries -- books like Rennie Airth's River of Darkness and Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost -- successfully combine suspenseful, imaginative storytelling with a precise, detailed evocation of a distant time and place. A notable addition to this select group is Elizabeth Redfern's The Music of the Spheres, an elegant, intelligent thriller that encompasses several disparate elements: war, politics, serial murder, sexual perversion, and the early history of astronomy.
The bulk of Redfern's novel takes place in London in the summer of 1795. England, at this time, is at war with Republican France, a nation still divided by the endless, ongoing Revolution. Thousands of French citizens -- exiled Royalists -- have found their way to London. The British authorities fear that this group may include Republican spies preparing the way for a French invasion, and the exiles are under constant scrutiny by the Home Office. At the center of this story is one particular Home Office agent -- Jonathan Absey -- whose personal and professional lives have become hopelessly intertwined.
Absey is obsessed with the murder of his teenage daughter, who was strangled to death a year before by an unidentified assailant. As the novel opens, a series of similar murders has come to light, and Absey embarks on a private, unauthorized investigation. That investigation unearths a convoluted espionage plot with far-reaching implications. It also puts him in contact with a perverse, aristocratic family of exiled French astronomers who are searching for an undiscovered planet rumored to lie hidden between Jupiter and Mars. When Absey forces his half-brother Alexander -- an amateur astronomer with forbidden sexual proclivities -- to infiltrate the group, he sets in motion a chain of events which will have tragic, unforeseeable consequences.
Redfern writes with clarity and wit, and brings a remote era -- with its nascent scientific theories and largely forgotten political and military controversies -- to palpable life. The Music of the Spheres offers tragedy, melodrama, startling revelations, historical accuracy, and a colorful portrait of late 18th-century London that compels and convinces from start to finish. Redfern is obviously a writer to watch, and she's given us one of the most accomplished, idiosyncratic debut novels of the year. This one is something special. Don't let it pass you by. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).