Series: ELECTRIC EMPIRE SERIES
Plot Type: Steampunk Fantasy
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3; Humor—2
The series heroine is 26-year-old Dr. Eliza Jeckyll, who works as a forensic scientist (like the ones on CSI, but with more gadgets and none of the gun play) and helps out with the lunatics incarcerated at Bethlem Royal Hospital. Eliza is the daughter of Dr. Henry Jeckyll, who died some years earlier. Both father and daughter were born with a strange "condition," that causes them to have two completely different persons living within their bodies. In Henry's case, his alter ego—his shadow—was Edward Hyde, a misshapen monster who rampaged murderously through London but never remembered his dastardly deeds the next day when he returned to his normal-looking Jekyll form. Eliza's shadow is Lizzie Hyde, a rash and impulsive pleasure seeker who resides deep within Eliza. Unlike Edward Hyde, Lizzie doesn't take the form of a monster, but her physical appearance is quite different from Eliza. Eliza is a slender blond, while Lizzie is a voluptuous brunette. Prim and proper Eliza wears somber gray dresses, while seductive, sensuous Lizzie always arrays herself in low-cut red gowns.
In the past, Lizzie has been released only if Eliza drinks a special elixir prepared for her by her father's old comrade, Marcellus Finch. But as the first novel begins, the elixir isn't working very well, and Lizzie is becoming stronger and stronger. Until now, Eliza hasn't remembered any of Lizzie's nighttime shenanigans, but now memories are filtering through and Eliza is becoming more and more fearful that Lizzie is going to take over for good. Lizzie, on the other hand, knows everything that Eliza does, and she doesn't always agree with Eliza's words and actions. The Jekyll/Hyde story has long been seen as a Freudian metaphor for the id/ego duality with which every person struggles: reason vs. instinct; social consciousness vs. primal needs; long-term strategies vs. immediate gratification.
Eliza is always in fear of being discovered by the Royal Society, an enforcement group that functions like the Spanish Inquisition. "In the past twenty years, while bloody revolution swept the Continent at the behest of sorcerers and charlatans, the Royal Society had become sole arbiters of what was science and what was witchcraft. Anyone found disputing the Philosopher's Laws—or deliberately defying them by dabbling in classically unexplained phenomena—was mercilessly re-educated…or worse." (from The Diabolical Miss Hyde) The "Philosopher" is Sir Isaac Newton, and his scientific laws are considered to be the be-all and end-all of all scientific study. The Royal periodically holds public burnings of people believed to have gone beyond Newton's laws as set forth in the Principia. Don't worry, though, this book doesn't dwell on dry scientific theories—quite the opposite, in fact. Also punished by the Royal are the supernatural citizens of London, who hide their cloven hooves and pointed ears from public view and keep to the shadows.
As the first novel begins, we learn that in the not-too-distant past, Eliza's testimony was instrumental in imprisoning a serial killer named Malachi Todd in Bethlem, where he has since been the focus of endlessly horrific medical experiments. Flashback scenes show us that Eliza and Todd have had a lengthy mutual fascination that can only end badly. At first, the flashback scenes and Eliza's obvious emotional connection with Todd made me think that I had missed a previous book or novella, but no, this is the way Carr planned it—providing just enough information to whet the imagination, but not enough detail to understand the situation completely.
For those readers who quibble over anachronisms in "historical" fiction, Carr includes an "Author's Note" in which she provides details of said anachronisms and explains why she inserted them into her tale.
First, let me introduce the main characters with whom Eliza/Lizzie interacts:
In the opening scene, Eliza is analyzing a gruesome murder scene. The body of a famous ballerina has been found in the alley behind the theater in which she has been performing—minus both legs. As Eliza and Griffin try to make sense of the crime scene, they are interrupted by Lafayette, who immediately appears to be a threat to Lizzie—a spy bent on learning the secret of her double life. As more bodies are found with missing parts, Eliza works with both Griffin and Lafayette to track down the perpetrator.
Since the death of Henry Hyde, Eliza's guardian has taken care of her financial needs, providing a fine town house and paying for a small staff. The guardian always refers to himself as A.R. and never allows Eliza to look at him. He generally communicates with her through ambiguous notes, and when he commands a meeting with her, he comes into her study through a window and stays deep in the shadows, warning her, "You know the Rules. Don't look behind you." Carr provides a handful of clues about A.R., enough that I was fairly certain of his identity before it was revealed late in the story.
Meanwhile Lizzie's attempts to take control are getting stronger and stronger. When she take over Eliza's body, we watch her dress up in various bright red dresses and head into the dark heart of London to the Cockatrice, her favorite flash house ("a place where criminals of all kinds congregate"). Carr provides an abundance of gritty and colorful details about London's underworld, sometimes so many that they slow the pace down to a slow walk.
As the story unfolds, Eliza is forced to walk a fine line as she attempts to identify the murderer, avoid the malevolent Todd, keep Lafayette from learning her shadowy secret, and deal with her wavering control over Lizzie. Meanwhile, she has flashbacks to her previous experiences with Todd and her memories of her childhood, including her father's chaotic laboratory and her mother's violent death. By the end of the book, many, many secrets have been revealed, leaving Eliza and Lizzie with a new relationship and unveiling all of Lafayette's secrets. Plus, Eliza/Lizzie solves the murders, but not without danger to herself and others.
Although the plethora of descriptive details about this alternate London sometimes bring the story to a complete halt, I found myself pulled in by the quirky characters and by Eliza/Lizzie's struggles for dominance. The characters are sometimes so eccentric that they become cartoonish. For example, in a description of one character, "His creaking black hat sported a net of cobwebs on its brim, and a tiny brown spider scuttled underneath into his scraggly white hair." I can imagine this character in a film directed by Tim Burton and animated by Pixar.
The steampunk mythology isn't terribly inventive. I've seen much of before in other novels/series, but it does have some imaginative moments. Again, though, there are too many descriptions of the various clockwork and steam-driven electrical gadgetry. The book could easily have been edited down considerably from its 400+ pages without damaging either the plot or the establishment of the story's sense of place. Even with these quibbles, though, I enjoyed the book and am looking forward to the Eliza/Lizzie's next adventure. Click HERE to read chapter one of The Diabolical Miss Hyde.