If you’re looking for a book with atmosphere, The Golden Key has it in peat-filled, gas-lit spadefuls. Set just after the end of Queen Victoria’s death, it travels from the fenlands of England to the spiritualist parlors of London, where seances are once more all the rage. Samuel Moncrieff is a young man adrift after a devastating loss, trying to drown his sorrows in the excesses available to those of his station. Thus, he’s drunkenly backstage at a music hall when he first encounters Helena Walton-Cisneros, a detective who masquerades as a medium, one of the few socially acceptable ways a woman can earn an independent living in those times. Their meeting is awkward, to say the least.
Shortly thereafter, Helena is hired by Lady Matthews, a close friend of Samuel’s godfather, Charles Bale, a confirmed spiritualist himself. Twenty years ago, Lady Matthews’ three young stepdaughters disappeared without a trace. Still wracked with guilt, she wants to make one last go of finding them, and charges Helena with the task of doing so. But both Lady Matthews and Charles have secrets they’d rather not give up, even when Helena finds herself imperiled in her pursuit of the truth. When signs point to Samuel being involved not only in the decades-old disappearances of the girls, but also in the contemporary vanishing of young children in London, Helena must ask herself how far she’s willing to go and whom she can trust as she struggles to bring the lost children home.
Marian Womack weaves a rich tapestry of historical fact with spooky, Gothic atmosphere to tell her weird tale of unearthly realms and the people who communicate between them. Feminist and smart, the novel brings a much needed new perspective to the early 20th century’s fascination with spiritualism and fairies. I wish more attention had been paid to the actual plot, tho. The setting is so lushly imagined, but we only get glimpses of what our main characters do, outside of conversations and the occasional seance. The most action-filled parts of the story belong to Lady Matthews, who is a minor character: I really wish we’d been given more detail as to what Helena, Samuel and the redoubtable Eliza were up to when they were working with magic. We get so much lead up and information as to what everyone is thinking and experiencing beforehand, that to have the most crucial bits just barely described, mentioned instead of shown, feels like being cheated out of the meat of the plot. That said, I did enjoy the attempts to apply scientific reasoning to certain of the phenomena. Like Helena, I prefer to apply facts first before considering the possibility of the supernatural.
The Golden Key is Ms Womack’s debut novel (out tomorrow from Titan Books!) and I’m very much looking forward to more. Her characters are unique and the settings both beautifully rendered and unsettling. With a little more action, a little more showing instead of telling, I’m confident that her future novels, hopefully featuring more Helena, will continue to amuse and enlighten.
I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to interview Ms Womack about The Golden Key, writing and some terrific new books she’s looking forward to, so come back on the 20th to see our discussion. In the meantime, check out some of the other blog stops on the book tour!