September 17, 2011

BOOKS: The Twelfth Enchantment, David Liss (2011)

David Liss is a rather erratic author. His historic/economic thrillers, set in England against the creation of our modern financial institutions -- the first stock markets, the first commodities markets -- are delightful. His attempts to recreate the formula with a colonial American setting have been less successful. And the less said about his lone contemporary novel, The Ethical Assassin, the better.

So in this new book, we have a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that Liss has returned to an English setting; the bad news is that he's abandoned his economic backdrop for a Jane Austen knockoff. And as seems to be increasingly popular these days, it's faux-Austen with magic thrown into the mix.

The setting is Nottingham in 1812, where the Luddite rebellion against the Industrial Revolution is beginning. Liss asks us to believe that the Luddites are actually a cabal of evil zombies (he doesn't actually use that word, and his version of the undead are more able to pass for human than the standard brain-obsessed crowd, but still, a zombie's a zombie) who can only be defeated by the skilled magicians of the Rosicrucian order, in conjunction with our heroine, Lucy Derrick.

Lucy is the leading lady from the "write your own Austen novel" kit -- she's beautiful, mildly disgraced, and about to be forced into a marriage to a man she does not love. She's also, much to her surprise, naturally gifted in the occult, and winds up leading the attempt to defeat the Luddite zombies.

Lord Byron is a significant supporting character, and William Blake makes a cameo appearance. It's all very silly, and gets off to a sluggish start, but Liss eventually works up a head of steam, and the final confrontation sequence is more exciting than I'd have expected.

And you have to have at least some affection for an author who can, in the midst of that grand climax, toss off this sentence without it feeling completely absurd: "Lucy would have responded, no doubt saying something cautious and uncertain, but the words never left her lips because that was when Mr. Morrison was struck down by a tortoise."

Certainly not up to the level of Liss's best work, but if you can slog through a slow opening, it has its moments.

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