Even though this kind of peters out into a bit of a mess at the end, it’s got such a great heroine I didn’t really care. Delphine is magnificent, in the way that characters in fiction are simultaneously magnificent and no-one you’d want anywhere near you in real life. She’s so well realised that I read the book in short bites, only able to take a little bit of the gathering tension in any one sitting. For most of the book it’s hard to tell if Delphine is just a bonkers tomboy imagining a more interesting world than the miserable loon-fest around her, or the only sane person in a slowly gathering occult disaster. Tim Clare does such a good job of holding that balance that it’s almost inevitable that it’s all going to go pear shaped once he has to get off the fence.
In one sense, I don’t have much more than that to say. It’s a good book, and often, a good book doesn’t leave me with much to say that the author hasn’t said better. The big strengths are Delphine and the sustained creepiness. A lot of that creepiness comes from the setting; there’s something inherently creepy about the thirties in England as certainties caved in and seedy aristos flirted with fascism in the hope of holding the dreaded bolshies at bay. Fascism didn’t really catch on in England, but there’s a sweet spot just there where you can see how it might have, and it’s somehow not comforting to know that it didn’t.
More of the creepiness comes from the simple banality of thirteen-year-old Delphine’s problems; her father is off his chump and his mother’s taking it out on her as they hover on the edge of a new age-y cult who seem to be living on the grace and favour of a dotty peer in the middle of nowhere. It’s such a believably unpleasant predicament that it’s easy to see how Delphine would run off into the country side and the cellars and start throwing together a world of conspiracy and god knows what to take refuge in.
And yet, from the beginning, we know she’s not imagining it; the book opens with her girded for battle against the creepy unknown, before we flash back to the beginning of it all. Delphine steps onto the page as a heroine, and the rest of the book is really about how she gets there, and how ready she really was for what she has to deal with.
The big bad, almost inevitably, isn’t a patch on her. It has to hide in the shadows for most of the book, and there isn’t enough room at the end for it to unfold into a fully satisfying shape. As it took shape, I found myself reminded of John Whitbourn’s Downs-Lord books from the 1990s, which shared some of the same notions of a parallel fantastical England, eldritch, amoral and far from benign.
As I got to the endgame, I started to ask myself “Is this thing planning to be a trilogy of some kind?” There are threads left hanging, in a way which could just be the cussedness of life, or lines leading into a sequel. So I went looking on t’intarwebz for clues. Which found I none, naturally, but I did discover Tim Clare’s website, from which I learned that he’s a stand-up poet, and rather less annoyingly bonkers than you’d expect from someone who’s adopted that non de guerre. And a gamer, who sounds like the sort of guy I could have a pint with. But mostly, a bloody good writer. I hope Delphine does come back.