[This review has minor, but not major spoilers: not ones I think would ruin your enjoyment of the novel.]
I’ve actually been pretty excited by this one – I loved the io9 excerpt, and as a general thing I don’t do fantasy in totally fantasy worlds. (If it’s got a map inside the front cover, I put it back.) So a London-based fantasy is always a draw for me, and then I realised it was playing with a trope I love, a secret group of guardians and watchers – so I caved and begged for the review copy. And having read it in two days, I have reached the following conclusion: The Oversight is a children’s book. For adults. Bear with me.
So it’s never stated outright when the novel is set, but my guess is round about 1850. It’s a London that contains all kinds of supernatural haunts and hauntings, but hidden from the population (this isn’t Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, though the comparison is apt enough I guess), and the ordinary citizens are protected by the eponymous Oversight, a Free Company of the city of London whose responsibility it is to keep them safe. (I went to a school formerly run by one of the Worshipful Companies. I am charmed by this.) The Oversight, who must exist in multiples of five for their own safety, were once far greater in number and influence than they are now: they’re down to the last five, what they call the Last Hand. The quiet threat that runs through the book is what will happen, and what begins to happen, when the number drops below five.
The novel opens with a girl called Lucy Harker, a strange girl with covered hands, making her strange way into the Safe House of the Oversight, and being partly responsible for a sequence of chaotic events that threatens to overwhelm them completely. On the way from A to B we have all the elements of a certain kind of gothic fantasy, so mysterious creatures of evil who can’t cross running water, check; manus gloriae, the hand of glory, check; strange breath-stealing creatures and glamours and spells and people who can talk to animals, check! Occasionally it goes slightly off-piste and gives us travelling circuses and pirate battles, also! And that’s fine. That’s just fine: it rollicks along cheerfully and it takes you along with it. And, you know, it does have a lot of the textual artefacts you more often see in children’s books – very short chapters, a list of dramatis personae in the front cover – and I wondered for a while if that was it: that it was a short, slight, cheerful story, with lots of imagination but not quite the macabre depth the original backstory of the Oversight promised. (Not to imply that children’s books must only be slight! As I said: bear with me.)
The five members of the Last Hand are Cook, Sara Falk, Mr Sharp, Hodge and the Smith. To say more about some of them would be to ruin the story. But my favourites by a hair are Sara Falk and Mr Sharp, the two members of the Oversight with backstories that are tied together in some intriguingly non-specific way. Mr Sharp – and why is he Mr Sharp, though Sara Falk gets both her names and Hodge gets his last, as is more conventional? That’s just how it is, as with Miss Honey and Mister Tibbs, elsewhere – presents an interesting conundrum. He’s perhaps the most powerful of the five, and with it, most susceptible to being destroyed by that power; he has an understated compassion for humanity, including the Oversight’s golem, Emmet, whom he resists treating as a thing rather than as a person, but in that power he has a capacity for violence. It also interests me that one aspect of Sharp’s power is his ability to make anyone fall for him. (It’s the first thing we see him do: a passing sot named Bill Ketch falls “confusingly and irrevocably” in love at first sight.) There’s a nascent queerness in that idea that I like a lot – later, the novel does explicitly draw together queerness and magical ability – and it’s wound up, somehow, in difference, and vulnerability.
Because Mr Sharp, whose capacity for damage scares even him, is possibly in love, possibly unrequited, with Sara Falk, who is known in the neighbourhood as “the Jew”, or the granddaughter of the rabbi, also “the Jew”. Sara, too, is mostly contradictions – she came to the Oversight as a young, frightened girl, and is now the strongest in personality of all of them – and they both linger at the fringes of the society they live in, held apart from it by the fact of their membership of the Oversight but also by the fact of who they are. And perhaps they ought to be tied together by that bond, and perhaps they are, or were, before the chaotic opening to the novel: but we never know, not really. The narration is omniscient but also kind of enigmatic, distancing – so the motivations and relationships between the characters remain obscure most of the way through in the way adults’ motivations and relationships often do, in children’s books. They’re a mystery. But we know they can get hurt, and that, probably, is it: because what the five very different members of the Oversight have in common is just that vulnerability. They have property and secrets and power, but it’s individual power, not systemic: there are only five of them, they’re fundamentally different from the world around them, and they can be hurt.
And so, the stated theme of the book is that love conquers all, and that brings us around to children’s novels again, because that’s a fairy-tale thought, isn’t it, that the prince falls in love with Cinderella and they live happily ever after, amor vincit omnia. And maybe that’s true and it isn’t. But it took me a time to get to it, because this isn’t a book about the heart but the hand: the Last Hand, Sara’s hand of glory, Lucy Harker, the girl with the covered hands. It’s about doing things, rather than wishing them; things that are hopeless, often, things that are desperate, but must be done, because Lucy is a survivor; because the Oversight vowed to uphold their responsibilities, though they are themselves diminished; because, in the end, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. And that’s where the adulthood comes in. Because what is growing up, but realising that: that sometimes you have to do what you have to do. It’s a simple theme, and it’s beautifully executed; I recommend this one.
Stray thoughts (a conceit I am stealing gratefully from the AV Club):
-There’s a dead prostitute scene. Why, why, why. For the most part this annoys me because there are no damsels in distress in this book, otherwise! Ladies save ladies, or ladies save themselves, here.
-It’s the first of a trilogy. Until page 100 I dared to hope, then lost all hope thereafter. But unlike some, the novel does cohere and resolve neatly as a single novel, so there’s that. I will wait with bated breath for the next installment. (No title as yet? Though “Polydactyly” springs facetiously to mind.)
-And, lastly, if reading aloud, find a Scot or similar. The Oversight have oversight of “the Law and the Lore”, and trying to make those two words sound even the tiniest bit different in my non-rhotic accent has been hilarity for all the family. Law and lore. Law and lore. Ah, shut up.
[My review copy of this book was provided by Jenni Hill at Orbit. Thanks again!]