“The Gods of Gotham” and “Seven for a Secret” – Lindsay Faye

The world would be a lonely, dreary place without libraries.

I stumbled across “Seven for a Secret” in the library. It was the book cover, I admit. I’m a sucker for Victorian era fiction (hence, my love for steampunk). This duo is set in 1845 New York. It comes with maps (for us non-New Yorkers) and a glossary of ‘flash’ terms. While the maps are sometimes needed, I found the glossary isn’t. It is because of Faye’s skill
that you get the meaning of the words through the context and I barely did any flipping to the glossary. And, actually, I found that seeing the ‘flash’ terms used in context helped define them much more than the glossary. However, it was very cool to learn that Captain Mastell did exist and did compile a dictionary of ‘flash’ terms so that he and his police force may better understand the lower and criminal classes.

I will be honest. I had a difficult time getting into the swing of “Seven” only because it is so immersed in the culture and language of 1845 New York. But I persisted and was heartily rewarded. In the end I was amazed at how adept Faye is at using the language without leaving the reader, or characters, behind. I tried to imagine how one would write in such a way and could only come up with, “She must speak like this in real life!” What an anthropological ride to take a trip like this! And I got a history lesson to boot.

If all books were blessed with characters like Valentine Wilde, there would be no shortage of novels or readers. Valentine isn’t the protagonist of either novel, he is the brother. He is larger than life, morally vague, a gambler, a sodomite, a drunkard, an addict, and a dashing handsome hero. He is the perfect contrast to our protagonist, the short-statured, honest, scarred, sober, straight-laced, younger brother, Tim. Tim lived through the New York fire of 1845 but lost his job, his home, his savings, and a bit of his face. He has a fresh start in the newly-minted police force. And, as you might guess, finds he has a knack for the job. Both characters are complex; just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they tilt a bit and you find a shadow where there should be light. Or, in Valentine’s case, light where you’d think there’d be shadow.

I read “Seven” first, not knowing it was the second book. There is a chronological sequence to these books, but I didn’t find I was missing a whole lot by starting backwards. However, it was nice to delve into the relationship between Mercy Underhill and Tim in “Gods” so as to commiserate in Mercy’s absence with Tim in “Seven.” There are also a few characters and relationships introduced in “Gods” that are grown and expanded in “Seven.” I found that the beginning of the relationship between Bird Daly and Tim especially intriguing, mostly because of her character.

The books are not only a study in language of the era, but of the social events and perceptions. Slavery, prostitution, rampant poverty, the Irish famine and immigration, party politics, and class distinctions are all brushed upon like a glaze over these stories. Faye places her historical details as adroitly as a skilled painter; never detracting, always enriching the landscape and characters.

In all, the characters and the language of these two books make these recommended reads. The characters are unique, complex, and well-developed. The language, even without the ‘flash,’ is richly woven with the era. Tim’s voice as narrator is strong and unique. While the structure of the novels are a bit predictable — a half page before the end of the chapter something will suddenly happen to get the reader to read into the next chapter — it worked. They are mysteries, after all.

I look forward to reading more of these characters, more of this voice, more of this language!

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