Creatures of Will and Temper, Molly Tanzer (John Joseph Adams 978-1-328-71026-0, $16.99, 358pp, pb) November 2017. Cover by Eduardo Recife.
Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Will and Temper, though set in late 19th-century England, is about as far from patriarchal and homophobic as it is possible for a novel set in this period to be. It draws some inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, according to the author’s foreword. I cannot talk sensibly about the relationship between these texts, however, since I’m among the number of readers who’ve never yet managed to read any Oscar Wilde. Yet Creatures of Will and Temper stands excellently without prior knowledge of the Wilde canon: it’s a complete narrative in itself, not a commentary on someone else’s.
Socially awkward, gauche, and still unmarried in her late twenties, Evadne Gray’s one passion in life is fencing. She doesn’t understand – and feels uncomfortable around – her bright, socially adept, artistic and unconventional younger sister Dorina. Dorina, likewise, lacks sympathy with Evadne’s concern for propriety and conventions, for rules. When Evadne is sent to London to chaperone Dorina’s visit to their famous artist uncle Basil – Dorina aspires to be an art critic – she finds herself in a milieu that leaves her deeply uncomfortable and off-balance.
Dorina, meanwhile, is having the time of her life. Her uncle’s friend, the aristocrat, aesthete, and bohemian Lady Henrietta “Henry” Wotton, has taken a shine to her, and Dorina is herself plenty enamoured with this sophisticated intellectual who wears men’s suits, smokes cigarettes, and takes ginger-scented snuff. Dorina is, in fact, attracted to Henry, and while Henry returns this regard, she feels that she shouldn’t: Dorina is much younger, and doesn’t know all that she’s getting into. Henry is a diabolist, who’s made a bargain with a demon. Her demon is largely inoffensive. It offers Henry and a small circle of her acquaintance enhanced appreciation of beauty and pleasure; they are harmless hedonists, but there is always a price for a demon’s gift – a reduced lifespan, or some other consequence.
With Dorina caught up in a whirl of artistic and social engagements that Evadne doesn’t care for, they become ever more estranged. When Evadne enrolls in a fencing school in order to have something that suits her own interests, she meets George Cantrell. She’d only ever dreamed of studying with an experienced fencing master like Cantrell, and she’s thrilled to have the opportunity. But Cantrell is more than he seems. He’s a demon-hunter, he tells Evadne, dedicated to eradicating demons and diabolists alike. He could use Evadne’s help, and Evadne is flattered to be asked. As she learns more, she begins to suspect that Lady Henry is a diabolist, and that Dorina might be becoming one too.
Creatures of Will and Temper starts slowly, a measured introduction to art galleys and drawing rooms, fin de siècle London in artists and gardens and a sense of social boundaries being redefined. Tanzer has a deft hand with the interplay between her characters: Evadne’s love for her sister and her discomfort with and judgment of Dorina’s choices; her awkwardness with and disapproval of Lady Henry; Dorina’s intellectual and physical attraction to Lady Henry and the game of flirting they’re both engaged upon – against Lady Henry’s better judgment – and her resentment of, bafflement with, and love for her sister; Uncle Basil’s grief for his dead lover, Lady Henry’s twin, and how that dominates his interaction with the world; Cantrell’s confidence and easy ability to convince Evadne… all of this builds slowly.
It comes as a bracing shock, but not an entirely unexpected one, when Tanzer introduces elements of horror – and action: Evadne fencing on rooftops with a dissolving diabolist, murdered children, a plan to slaughter Lady Henry and her entire coterie that only Evadne – if she chooses – can thwart. The climax of Creatures of Will and Temper is tense and brutal, demandingly fast, and deeply satisfying – but it may feel to some readers as if it belongs in a different book from the one portended by the novel’s opening.
There are two emotional relationships at the heart of Creatures of Will and Temper – perhaps three or four, depending on how we consider Henry’s and Dorina’s relationship to art and beauty, and Evadne’s relationship to fencing. There’s the bond between very dissimilar sisters, and there’s Dorina’s and Henry’s dancing around the potential romantic bond between the two of them. These provide a complicated emotional framework around which Creatures of Will and Temper builds its climax and dénouement.
One of Tanzer’s previous works, Vermillion, also set itself at the end of the 19th century, but in the American West. It too dealt with odd magics and peculiar demons, and women who did not precisely fit traditional gender roles. Creatures of Will and Temper feels a little quieter, a little more accessible, than Vermillion, but it is definitely interested in some of the same thematic elements. It’s a deeply satisfying novel. I recommend it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the February 2018 issue of Locus.