Friday, September 16, 2011

(No.170) Revenants, Rosicrucians & Luddites

I wrote the following review for publication in two southern Ontario daily newspapers: The Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

It appeared in the Sept.10, 2011 editions of those newspapers.


David Liss is a talented novelist, one of a group of contempoaray writers whose new books I eagerly await. Historical fiction, or perhaps more accurately, fiction in historical settings is often written but too often not very well, especially in terms of verisimilitude.

David Liss belongs in the company of accomplished historical novelists like Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) and today's Alan Furst and Philip Kerr, to name just three of my favourites.

As someone who once declined a doctoral fellowship I am particularly interested by the fact that Liss left off working on his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University more than a decade ago to write his first novel, the award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper (2000). It is set in 18h century London as are a couple of subsequent novels. He has said that in his first novel "I chose to write about 18th century British culture and economics because it was something I knew about."

The range of his writing and historical research since the first novel is impressive and reflected in novels set in 17th century Amsterdam (The Coffee Trader), 1790s America (The Whisky Rebels) and modern Florida (The Ethical Assassin).

The new Liss novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, is his seventh and is yet another departure. Its style, subject matter and setting (England during the years of the Napoleonic wars) are reminiscent of aspects of Jane Austen, some Charles Dickens plus a great deal of imaginative writing by David Liss.

The central character is Lucy Derrick, a young impoverished gentlewoman residing ca. 1812 in the provincial city of Nottingham. She does not know but gradually comes to understand that she possesses much sought after mystical powers. She becomes caught up in a struggle involving revenants (walking dead), Rosicrucians (a secret society) and Luddites (anti-industrial machine breakers) and their respective allies in contemporary England.

Others with an oar in this murky political pond include the Prime Minister who is also the secret head of the Rosicrucians as well as the famous aristocratic poet and degenerate Lord Byron. A key plot line running throughout the novel is a desperate, dangerous and highly competitive hunt for all twelve of the widely dispersed pages of the elusive and mystically powerful Mutus Liber.

The Twelfth Enchantment is a testament to David Liss' willingness to try different subjects and approaches and to his skill as a novelist. He creates a plot, one which seems on one level so removed from his previous historical-political fiction yet seems so real on other levels.

The story slows down a bit in those parts of the novel which see Lucy trying to enhance her mystical skills by learning steadily more about spells, curses and the like. However the novel works. It is an unusual mystery set in Regency England.

While The Twelfth Enchantment is not my favourite David Liss novel it is, like all his novels, well worth reading.

The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss
Random House (2011) $30

by Alastair Rickard




to set a 'Google alert' for new columns as they are posted on, go to: