It becomes apparent from the opening of The Half-Killed that Quenby Olson is a master of mimicking Victorian prose. I would wager that she is so good, so authentic, that she could fool the literati of the time. She sets up the prologue of The Half-Killed in second-person point of view, potentially the only clue that this isn’t a book written in the late 1800s, and it is an effective prologue in the sense that it introduces us to our protagonist, Dorothea Hawes, as a young girl witnessing the death of her family. It is a gorgeous and horrific scene, and sets a gripping tone that does not let up until the last page is turned – and only then can we again safely draw breath.
Olson’s prose never wanes, never dims, and is fluid and melodic throughout the entire novel. I have not read much, particularly in the fantasy realm, that matches it. It is poetry at times, so much so that it actually gets in the way of the story. In fact, one of my only real gripes with The Half-Killed is that its language is so descriptive and beautiful that it sometimes interrupts the pacing of the book. I found myself lost amidst passages, happily so, but then confused when the action of the plot regained its footing and needing to relocate my bearings. This is actually not a bad problem to have, but it does create problems for story.
That story revolves around a sweltering Victorian London, seized in an unnatural heat that dries up the Thames and causes even some of the stuffiest citizenry in the history of humanity to loosen a button or two. Thea, who had once used her talents as a supernatural medium to become a celebrity of London, has since fallen on typically hard times. In a period when the act of convening with the spiritual realm is both scandalous and popular, Thea stands out as one of the few practitioners who can actually do the deed. But it comes with a price – voices that constantly assail her and memories she wishes she could bury in her mental graveyard. It is only when Julian Chissick arrives on her doorstep, imploring her to help him find the killer of his recently murdered sister, that Thea is drawn back into a life and to people that she would rather forget. Naturally, this leads to a host of further problems and much more death.
Walking through Victorian London with Quenby Olson is a treat. This is an author who obviously loves this time period, cherishes it, but in loving it can also see its faults and point them out piece by piece to a reader. Victorian London is disgusting – particularly in unseasonable heat. There are no air conditioned parlors to escape to here, and the aforementioned moral stuffiness of the time means that one cannot simply throw on a pair of shorts instead of their proper gown or trousers. Olson turns this era, often depicted as glamorous and clean, into what it truly is – a dim horror. Candle wax seems to be on everything, the streets are lined with all manner of refuse and excretion, and the bodies of people, described in minute detail, verge on the grotesque. At the same time, The Half-Killed does manage to capture the romance of Victorian England. The interactions between the main characters, each genuine in their own way, is decidedly proper but yearning. And London is always London, no matter how dirty it gets. The attention to detail in The Half-Killed is extraordinary and exciting.
It’s amazing how much Olson gets right with this book. The humor is dry, like the parched bed of the Thames itself, but genuinely funny. “If she’s ever been in contact with a spirit,” Thea says of one character who fashions herself Britain’s Next Top Medium, “it’s never been more frightening than one she could mix into her afternoon tea.” Or, when speaking of a former suitor’s possibility of bearing children, Thea claims that, “he’s always been something of a child himself. For him to have a son or daughter of his own… I don’t think he’d relish the competition.” The delivery here is pitch perfect, and it isn’t often that I take the time to write out quotes from books these days, but I found many of Olson’s one liners to be worthy of repeat. She also gets dialogue right, which is extremely hard to do, particularly when writing about a real-world time period. Characters talk in dialect, but there is no heavy-handed apostrophe work here. Rather, the author understands how speech patterns and word choice can invoke dialect better than any attempt at trying to out-muddle Irvine Welsh.
The only thing that keeps me from declaring The Half-Killed to be the perfect Victorian fantasy thriller is the ending. ***Spoilers to follow, so beware.*** There is a Fight Club-style ending to The Half-Killed that left me unsatisfied, and I wonder if that’s mostly on me for not really understanding this type of conclusion. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden is blasted out of the narrator’s head by a well-placed gun shot that leaves said narrator still alive. Something similar happens withThe Half-Killed, but I couldn’t really figure out why, in either book, this left the protagonist alive. How does approaching death’s door drive out these dark passengers? Perhaps this is something Olson will explore in the next book, and she has plenty left yet to explain. A certain set of photographs and their larger implications is also left unresolved, and even the villain of The Half-Killed is never truly unveiled. Some of these are, again, good problems to have because it means an eventual sequel to this beautiful novel, and I am here for that.