Lauren Owen’s The Quick, about aristocratic monsters stalking London’s streets during Victorian England, is pitch-perfect and unputdownable. Like the best horror novels, it uses its subject to address real-world issues—in this case, class—but doesn’t allow its metaphorical weight to hold it down. This is a book to choose over sleeping; to savor in the small hours by lamplight.
James and Charlotte Norbury are forgotten children, living a life of privilege in an abandoned estate, with only each other for company. At a certain age, however, they are forced to part ways: James is thrown into a world of boarding schools, while Charlotte is left to play caretaker to a grumpy aunt. They both suffer. James, sensitive and introverted, is overwhelmed by the social requirements of college and, later, the city; Charlotte’s potential and independence are stifled.
Shortly after finally finding what seems like happiness as a bourgeoning playwright and lover, James disappears. Charlotte is determined to find him and, harder still, save him. Even if she must scour Europe to do it.
The best test of any genre book is whether you want to follow its characters around even if they weren’t thrown into extreme situations. Philip Marlowe, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Sara Gran’s savvy but self-destructive detective-for-the-21st-century Claire DeWitt would be top-notch company regardless of whether they were solving crimes. Similarly, James and Charlotte are compelling characters before anything unusual happens to either of them.
As The Quick’s focus broadens, it pulls in a cash-strapped, sympathetic scientist who slides into evil so imperceptibly that it is hard to identify the moment he becomes a villain; an unlikely husband-and-wife team of rare book collectors; Dickensian street urchins and callow toffs in one of London’s oldest, most exclusive club; ex-circus performers; and more. Like Wilkie Collins, the creeptastic 19th century British author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, whom she channels, Owen commands the reader’s attention throughout, spinning silver knives when necessary without relying on them. Her atmospheric prose and storytelling skills are all she actually needs.
The Quick is a B&N Discover Great New Writers selection for Summer 2014. See the full collection of Discover picks here.