Top critical review
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on 11 January 2015
I have a love-hate relationship with Victorian and Victorian-imitative fiction. It can be lush, eloquent and rich.... or it can be bloated like a dead whale.
And Lauren Owen's "The Quick"... has a little bit of both. It's an ambitious project, marrying modern vampire fiction to the dense Gothic horrors of the 19th-century, but it also has a staggeringly slow-moving first hundred pages. Once it does get moving, Owen delights in draping it with lush atmosphere and prose -- decaying country houses, the shadows of Oxford, and a gentleman's club of immortals.
For the last few years, shy James Norbury has been attending classes at Oxford, hoping to become a poet/playwright. He's also become friends with the decadent and charming Christopher Paige... and eventually the two young men become lovers. But since this was 1892 England, their love is very illegal. When Paige's brother threatens James, they decide to run away to Florence together... only to vanish.
We're then introduced to the Aegolius Club, an elite club of vampires. Yes, vampires -- the word is painstakingly blotted out, but the inquisitive Augustus Mould's investigations reveal that they are none other than vampires. They are the enemies of those whom they call "The Quick," and they have recently discovered that The Exchange (which makes vampires) can be done against the victim's will.
Charlotte comes in search of her brother, but is strangely unable to find him, which she chalks up to mental illness. But she soon runs afoul of one gang of vampires, and is narrowly rescued by a group of men whose quest is to protect the living from the dead. Can she save James from his bloodthirst, and from the Aegolius Club?
"The Quick" is an beautifully-written piece of vampire fiction, dancing between the vaguely penny-dreadful and the elegantly gothic. Owen drapes the book in beautiful language that reeks of fogs, cobblestones, rains in the Yorkshire countryside, the halls of Oxford and sleek cold things lurking in darkened rooms. And she handles the whole matter of vampires with a deft hand, although they're pretty standard bloodsuckers.
Here's the problem: it takes FOREVER for stuff to happen. It's a good hundred pages before James does anything but fall in love and write; and after that dramatic attack, we get several chapters of Augustus very... very... slowly recounting his observations and experiences.
"The Quick" would have been a very good historical-fantasy book, if it been trimmed to roughly two-thirds of its length, and perhaps rearranged so that Charlotte doesn't take HALF THE BOOK to properly enter the story. While Owen grasps the eloquent verbosity of Victorian literature, her story is simply too slow-moving to be as entertaining as it should be, especially with a fairly complex and promising vampire culture.
The character are also rather spotty -- James is a rather endearing character, a blossoming artist who is on the verge of finding happiness when the vampires drag him down. Charlotte is less well-defined, since she doesn't enter the plot properly until the halfway point -- and without the hundred pages of character development that her brother got. The other characters range from eerie (Augustus Mould) to fairly flat and ordinary (a street urchin -- how very Dickensian!).
If it had been edited and rearranged somewhat, "The Quick" would have been a strong little historical vampire novel. As it is, it's an interesting piece... but it requires a lot of patience to burrow down to the plot.