Fairy tales, bad TV, classroom ramblings, and contemporary speculative fiction ...
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
The Quick: Not (just) another vampire novel
**We've been selling out of this book at the store lately, which really boosts my confidence in my book-picking abilities, because I loved this book and have been recommending it to customers. This review originally appeared here at FantasyLiterature.com, where I gave the book 4 stars out of 5.**
The blurb of Lauren Owen’s debut novelThe Quick piqued my interest, with its talk of an unlikely romance, Victorian London’s secret underworld, and a mysterious members-only institution, The Aegolius Club. And its cover, an understated black-and-white photo of a young man reading in a library, spoke to the part of me that loves elegant, emotionally-withdrawn period dramas. Had I known it was another vampire novel, I might have been less excited about picking it up. And that would have been a real shame. While this first novel has some faults, the confidence and skill with which it is pulled off is astounding.
One of the coolest things about The Quick is that it doesn’t scream “vampire novel.” I got swept up in the story before I realized that something strange, perhaps even supernatural, was happening behind the scenes. The V-word is only used two or three times in the entire book, and (best of all) none of the marketing suggests vampires. The blurbs don’t use the word, the cover doesn’t have pallor-tastic sexy young things, the title doesn’t drip blood, all of which means that I was legitimately surprised (just like we humans would be in the real world) when, a hundred pages in, the first vampire attack occurred.
Of course, the writing’s pretty good, too. Lauren Owendoesn’t really attempt to write like a Victorian — her sentences are much too short, for one thing — but her eye for detail makes the world she creates come alive. She describes one character’s love of tulips, saying that he “would keep them for days, letting the petals come loose and the stems wind across the table like slender green snakes.” I read that sentence at least three times when I first encountered it, reveling that this author perfectly captured a phenomenon that I had seen but never really noticed.
The biggest drawback of The Quickis that, at times, it felt like the story Owen was telling got a little bit too big for her. For instance, the majority of the first hundred pages occurs from one character’s point-of-view. Then the book shifts, quickly, between several different character perspectives. The effect is jarring; I wanted her to weave these perspectives together more seamlessly from the beginning. Owen also directed my attention to some plot elements that didn’t end up being as big a deal as I’d thought they would be, like James hiding Doctor Knife’s journal in the sepulcher, or the legendary figure of the Seraph. The lore-nerd in me wanted more backstory for the vampires — who were they and where did they come from? (But let’s face it, I’m the kind of reader that wants every fantasy world to come complete with a Silmarillion.)
The plot itself moves relatively slowly. Although the main action of the book takes place in only a few weeks, The Quick begins with a scene from the protagonist’s childhood and ends seventy-some years later. This telescoping effect makes the major conflict of the book seem, in retrospect, more like a footnote — one of the thousands of stories that could have been told about characters we’ve been privileged to eavesdrop on.
Ultimately, this wasn’t really a story about vampires. It was a story about the emotional fallout when the supernatural intrudes, violently and tragically, on the human world. The Quick’s strongest point is its emotional reality. Owen’s description of the character’s emotional lives is just as detailed as her description of tulip stems, tender without crossing into excessive sentimentality. The six primary characters are wonderful, and their connections to each other feel true. Love takes everyone by surprise. A good thing, too, because the world they live in is sad and hard, and love is about the only thing that makes it bearable.