If you’re looking for a big fantasy/horror novel you’ll get lost in for a while, this is a book to consider. It combines elements of many other stories — a gothic mansion in the Scottish highlands, a school for “unusual” children, a tormented villain, and brave heroes, both young and old. It’s one of those stories that will remind you of other stories you love, without feeling tired. It does lag at times, and it’s long, but it’s a fun read.
It begins in 1874 with a baby on a train, Marlowe, found in the arms of a dead woman. Marlowe finds himself adopted again and again throughout the story. He has terrifying powers – he can heal others but he can also burn. Since birth he’s been pursued by Jacob Marber, a man made of dust and smoke.
Then the book shifts to Charlie Ovid, a black teenager in Mississippi. Charlie can heal himself, so he’s immortal but he still feels pain. And sadly, the 1880s South has dealt him plenty of that.
Then there’s Frank Coulton and Alice Quicke, who are charged with finding these unusual children (called Talents), keeping them safe, and bringing them to the Cairndale Institute in Scotland where they can be trained.
Much of the story is told through Charlie and Alice, though there are quite a few other characters. Miro writes vividly, and the book is full of terrifying pursuits, travel, and epic battles (maybe even a few too many). This is a book that could easily be made into a movie or series. The characters are complex, facing difficult choices and tragic losses. These are society’s outcasts, coming together and building a family. But at the same time, it’s pretty clear that there’s not much difference between the heroes and the villains in this story.
I always think a fundamental rule of horror is this: that humans are far scarier than any monster an author can invent. That’s true in this book, beginning with the horror of Charlie being repeatedly tortured in a Southern prison for the crime of being black and refusing to die. This idea of human cruelty is woven throughout the book, though there is kindness and bravery as well.
If you’re looking for a fun read (dark, but fun), this is a book that will absorb you into a dark, Victorian world of monsters, ghosts, and magic.
Note: I received a complimentary review copy from NetGalley and publisher Flatiron Books. This book was released on June 7, 2022.