Lord Byron might have been described by his ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” but in David Liss’ most recent occult-themed historical romance The Twelfth Enchantment we find the dark and debauched author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage spitting up needles before a young woman who has been swindled out of her fortune, groveling under the oppressive force of a Rosicrucian hex, and begging the lovely young woman not to marry a mill owner who likes cold chicken and quietude.
Part environmental fantasy, part magical primer, The Twelfth Enchantment entwines legendary literary personas like William Blake with the mythical anti-machinist General Ludd, and might be the first pastiche of the 19th century-styled “penny dreadful” (that genre of fast-paced, serialized Victorian adventure stories informing both Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige) to suggest that the precursors of modern-day trade unions were once guided by fairies.
In his seventh novel, San Antonio’s David Liss takes his readers past the veneer of a world of crumpets and corsets and into an ectoplasmic England on the cusp of an industrial revolution where psychic conspirators gather to manipulate world events and a young lady who has no say in who she is engaged to wed advances in the art of alchemy by slicing a lemon that is too bitter for punch.
A Glinda the Good Witch type named Mary paints for our heroine Lucy the bleak picture of a future world of unchecked capitalism and industrial progress run diabolically amok: “Imagine forests destroyed for fuel to feed the mills, rivers blackened with their wastes. Generation after generation of children who know nothing of childhood, but only long hours of labor. Imagine men who are virtual slaves to mill owners, who dictate conditions and wages.”
The Twelfth Enchantment, with its insistence on social critique amid elaborate incantations, is a bit like reading Charles Dickens’ Hard Times with that Angela Lansbury Disney flick Bedknobs and Broomsticks playing on mute in the background.
That is: Edgar Award-winner Liss has provided a truly wicked read, a cartoonishly entertaining yet culturally instructive fiction that no conscientious admirer of occult fantasy need feel any guilt over indulging in.
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