Edward Fraser is, in spite of his youth, something of a dry old stick so when his closest friend at Oxford University, Stephen Chapman, lets his medical studies take second place to his volunteer work at a shelter for fallen women Edward is understandably concerned. Even worse, the main attraction in this line of work for Stephen appears to be the lady who runs the shelter - Diana Pelham - someone Edward suspects, with very strong reason, of having a rather shady past herself. The thing is, are Edward's fears for his friend justified or does he simply want to keep Stephen to himself and away from the lures of attractive females? Where exactly do his interests and motives lie? Edward isn't quite the straight-forward narrator he seems and while Diana Pelham clearly has a secret to hide is she wicked or merely misunderstood?
The Whores' Asylum is the first novel by Katy Darby and all in all it has quite a lot going for it. The action sequences, and the moments which have a touch of the macabre and the surreal in particular are all well handled. The book features an enraged bear dressed in a sort of harlequin outfit and kept prisoner in a cellar; it has scenes of shabby well-to-do men wearing masks and making free with ladies of the night in plush, velvet-draped rooms and it has, best of all to my mind, a description of a duel taking place one foggy morning which packs a real emotional punch; but where, for me, the book suffers slightly is with the pacing. I suspect the novel could lose twenty pages or so and would, if some of the descriptions of what the characters were thinking and feeling emotionally were slightly pared back, rattle along all the better for it. The charcters themselves however are engaging - Edward Fraser the old before his time theology student with a distrust of Diana Pelham that may, or may not, be justified is a wonderful creation and some of the minor characters such as Sukey the abused and betrayed woman who comes good in the end are highly likeable and engaging. The descriptions of the run-down area of Jericho are also suitably atmospheric - at times as heros, villains and imperilled ladies chase each other back and forth through the shadowy, low-life strewn streets the book almost reads like a Sherlock Holmes story transferred from London to Oxford - and there is enough incidental detail to give a real feeling of the late Victorian era.
In a way there is hardly a dearth of fiction set during the Victorian era but even so this is a welcome addition to the well-stocked shelves. What it may lack in terms of depth (it doesn't have quite the same level of emotional intensity as, say, 'The Crimson Petal and the White' or Sarah Waters's 'Affinity') it more than makes up for in well-drawn characters and exciting set-pieces. It's a promising debut and Katy Darby is definitely an author to watch out for in the future. Highly enjoyable.
One final point - almost as an aside. The book itself as a physical object is rather lovely. The cover illustration is delightful and the covers themselves have an embossed feel to them that gives the illusion that the covers are made of cloth. In an age where content is all and where text can be downloaded to e-readers in seconds it's rather encouraging to see such a beautifully produced bookjacket, especially for a first-time novelist.