Ms. Owen is a 28-year-old native of Yorkshire with an MA in Victorian Literature. THE QUICK (published by Penguin Random House, 2015) is Owen’s debut novel. It’s being compared to such works as the ALL SOULS TRILOGY (of which I am a hearty fan) by Deborah Harkness who contributed a lovely accolade on the book cover, Erin Morgenstern‘s THE NIGHT CIRCUS (which I absolutely adore) and THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova (which I’ve not yet read but have added to my TBR list).
THE QUICK begins and ends in Aiskew Hall, the Yorkshire childhood home of Charlotte and James Norbury. Once an idyllic estate, it falls into disrepair upon the loss of their mother, followed swiftly by the absence of their father.
Charlotte, being the older of the two, takes charge of her cherished and delicate brother. The two are often left on their own to roam the grounds with Charlotte acting as a teacher, drilling young James on his alphabet.
Following their father’s return to Aiskew Hall and his prolonged passing, the children are separated – James to boarding school then college while Charlotte remains with their great-aunt, Mrs. Chickering.
The story picks up with James, heading to London upon graduation from Oxford. Living off the moderate inheritance provided by Aiskew Hall, he intends to spend his life as a writer; thus, begins his work on Gondoline, an epic poem he never manages to finish.
While in London, searching for affordable and acceptable (two disparate conditions in Victorian times) quarters, James runs into a former colleague from Oxford. He has the perfect solution – another friend, Christopher Paige – who is on the outs with his family – is in need of a roommate. The house in which he lives is owned by a recently widowed woman. The rent is reasonable and the neighborhood acceptable. James agrees to meet Paige.
Christopher Paige is everything James is not – sociable and carefree. The two form a friendship, at first bound to the confines of their living quarters. Eventually, Paige coaxes James out into London to attend parties and the theater, where James is exposed to a new passion – playwriting. On the night he finishes his first play and is emboldened to leave it on the doorstep of Oscar Wilde, James’ life is forever changed.
Part 1 of the THE QUICK establishes James in a world free of supernatural characters. Ms. Owen intends for the reader to grow comfortable with the Victorian setting and attached to the characters before revealing the side of London most of its inhabitants have ignored for centuries, though it’s never made clear how long the night creatures have been lurking.
The story continues from the other side, introducing the reader to a host of bad, immoral and even worse characters. There are several players in this match between the “undid” and the few who’ve chosen a life to fight them. James is, unfortunately, caught in the middle.
Charlotte makes her way to London after not hearing from her brother for some time. Coming from a simple country life, she is fast educated on the ways of the dark underground society.
Lauren Owen builds THE QUICK’s atmospheric society in thoughtful layers. Her choice of words is neither complicated nor superfluous, but they are the right words. Where THE NIGHT CIRCUS is elegant and the ALL SOULS TRILOGY is seductive, THE QUICK is unsentimental – almost reading more like a history book than a work of fiction. That is meant entirely as a compliment.
There are touches of romance, but the author doesn’t linger. There are scenes of brutality, but they are not over the top. This novel is meant to be read by those who appreciate escapism, surprises, history and damn fine writing.
Honorable Mention: If you are more of an audio book listener, you will be very pleased with