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Thursday, March 5, 2015


Author:  Viola Carr (aka Erica Hayes)
Plot Type:  Steampunk Fantasy     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Harper Voyager     
          The Diabolical Miss Hyde (2/2015)
          Tenfold More Wicked (10/2015)
     Carr has created a fantastical Victorian-era steampunk world in which she lays out a story that combines the elements of three iconic works of fiction (and film):
   >  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: a two-natured "freak" who swings between two personalities: a low-key, pragmatic scientist by day and a hard-drinking, thrill-seeking hedonist by night.
   >  Victor Frankenstein: A mad scientist who is obsessed with bringing the altered dead back to life.
   >  The Wolfman (classic film version and graphic novel version): Accidentally bitten and turned into a man/beast, he dedicates his life to finding a cure.  

     This alternate London is a typical steampunk city: "Electric carriages rattled by, their glowing blue coils spitting sparks. Prostitutes prowled, a riot of feathers and colored gowns. Clockwork servants in frock coats clicked and whirred, striding to and fro on brass legs as they ran their errands, their painted plaster faces impassive. The ground rumbled as the Electric Underground hurtled by, and from an iron vent in the street, black smoke and sparks billowed in the stink of hot copper wire."(from The Diabolical Miss Hyde)

       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 shadowwas 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 Lawsor deliberately defying them by dabbling in classically unexplained phenomenawas 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 theoriesquite 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 itproviding 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. 

            NOVEL 1:  The Diabolical Miss Hyde             
     Carr switches the narrative perspective back and forth between Eliza and Lizzie. She changes up the point of view to alert the reader as to which woman is in charge. When Eliza is in control, the narrative is written in third person past tense: "Eliza hurried along a narrow passage towards the office…The stale air smelled of disinfectant. In the distance, an inmate wailed." When Lizzie is in control, the narrative is written in her first person singular voice in the present tense and with a Cockney accent: "Dark mutiny mutters in my blood. I ain't backing off. I've had enough of his insinny-ations." Lizzie comments on Eliza's actions as well as her own: "Lizzie wails in denial, and her voice dazzles me."

First, let me introduce the main characters with whom Eliza/Lizzie interacts:

  > Hippocrates (aka Hipp): Eliza's clockwork dog, who accompanies her everywhere and serves as a kind of personal assistanta steampunk Siri.

  > Detective Inspector Harley Griffin: Eliza's partner, the only detective who will take her seriously.

  > Captain Remy Lafayette: A handsome and flirtatious Enforcer for the Royal Society; a man with deep personal secrets

  > Matthew Temple: Author of sensational stories that he distributes in self-published tabloids. He is constantly after Eliza to give him information on the "Chopper"the nickname given to London's newest serial killer.

  > Wild Johnny: Lizzie's handsome friend: "Johnny's what country folk call feywhich is to say he's touched a bit odd. His eyes are a little too far apart, and his sharp-nailed fingers wrap further round that cup than they've any right to…" Lizzie has known Johnny for ten years, since she was sixteen and he was eleven, and he has always been her rakish protector.

  > Marcellus Finch: A sly pharmacist who provides Eliza with various elixirs, some that she uses in her crime scene analyses and two that help her control Lizzie: one to bind Lizzie down and one to set her free.

  > Sir Jedediah Fairfax: The doctor with whom Eliza works at Bethlem Asylum. He tortures inmates in the name of scientific experimentation.

  > William Sinclair: One of Fairfax's students who has a bit of a crush on Eliza.

  > Malachi Todd (aka Razor Jack): A psychopathic serial killer incarcerated at Bethlem and the object of Fairfax's most outlandish and painful experiments. Eliza has always been weirdly attracted to him, but Lizzie hates and fears him. He seems to know all about Eliza's shadow life, and he hints that he knows the identity of the murderer she is seeking.

     The first chapter begins with Lizzie's description of Eliza entering a murder scene. At first, I though that Lizzie was one of the gawking bystanders, but she soon makes it clear just who she is: "She blinks, and shivers, and shoves me away. And like a mad wife locked in the attic, I'm helpless…I scream and fight, clawing for her eyes, but she ignores me. Me, Lizzie Hyde. Her own blood. Her own SOUL. I hate this. I want to get out…But I can't escape. Not without her help."   

     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 performingminus 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 Lizziea 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.

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