- The Good: Gifted children at a school for those with powers
- The Bad: Perhaps too expansive – too many characters; unclear motivations; unrealized magical systems
- The Literary: Gothic and Victorian!
Marlowe is an orphan, a foundling on a rail car, who occasionally shines with a bright blue light, a light that burns, melts, and heals flesh. Charlie’s an orphan too. His body heals itself, whether he wants it to or not, and after being hanged in Texas for the accidental death of his employer, and surviving, he’s locked up and beaten daily. Little do Marlowe and Charlie know that their lives will change forever when two grizzled detectives, Alice and Coulton, find them and escort them to London and eventually Edinburgh, where an Institute houses other young children with gifts.
There are certainly plenty of other stories about children with supernatural abilities who find a place for themselves among their peers in a special school, from the classic X-Men to the more recent Umbrella Academy. Marlowe and Charlie find a new home with Komako, Ribs, and Oskar. And like those stories, this includes the pleasantly familiar coming of age arcs as the children learn the nature of their differences. I love that the children all have dark pasts, often involving extreme poverty or the death of a loved one.
Speaking of dark pasts, set in 1882, this book is appropriately gothic for a story set in the Victorian era. The nature of the children’s gifts the and basis for the magical systems throughout are based on death, specifically the manipulation of dead flesh. The Institute where their school resides hides dark secrets, from children who disappear in the night, to a portal to the underworld, to a headmaster with his own motives, which don’t have the children’s best interests in mind. On top of that, a terribly powerful man surrounded by smoke is hunting Marlowe and Charlie.
At the same time, there’s a lot about this book that doesn’t feel quite finished. Despite the large cast of characters, the plot still relies on all the important people just happening to come together at the right time. The magical system and the children’s powers, while dark and alluring, aren’t really part of the climactic struggle. The motivations and relationships of several of the adults are muddled. Despite Marlowe and Charlie being the primary protagonists, many parts of the book don’t include them at all as the perspective and timeline jumps around.
That being said, the story subverts my expectations of familiar tropes multiple times. I love the rich and expansive (and macabre) worldbuilding. Several quiet character moments (Komako’s sisters’ death in a playhouse storage room in Tokyo, and Charlie and Marlowe’s discussion of their parentage in a moldy room in the underworld) and several high-stakes action scenes (the first battle with the man surrounded by smoke in and on top of a train, and a claustrophobic fight scene in a basement between two women and a golem) are so vivid that I think these characters will stick with me a long time.
Thanks to Netgalley and Flatiron Books for a free copy in exchange for an honest review!