Bitter after learning her longtime friend has proposed to another woman, Evadne hopes to ruin her spoiled sister’s trip to London by exposing her scandalous relationship with another girl. Instead, Evadne is sent along with young Dorina to keep an eye on her as they visit their Uncle Basil, a painter. The girls meet Basil’s friend Lady Henry and while Dorina is immediately smitten, Evadne remains skeptical. As Dorina moves deeper into Henry’s world both sisters discover a link to the supernatural that could put both their lives at risk.

Review by Milliebot Reads
ARC E-BOOK, 368 pages
ISBN: 9781328710260 (PAPERBACK)

Though I DNF’d (did not finish) The Picture of Dorian Gray in high school, I was very much interested in a sort of gender-swapped reimagining.

This is a slow burning story and one that I found highly immersive. Molly Tanzer gives us a look at two sisters: Evadne, who is 29, strong-willed, judgmental and a stickler for the rules, but loves (and is excellent at) fencing, despite it being a very unladylike sport. Her much younger sister, Dorina, is 16 (er, or maybe 19, now I can’t remember, sorry), an unrestrained flirt, impetuous and spoiled, but dreams of being an art critic. The two sisters fail to find anything in common between the two and often fight. Neither can seem to understand the other’s motivations or actions.

When Evadne catches Dorina being intimate with a female friend, her first thought is to wreck her sister’s London trip by revealing the relationship to their mother. Dorina is sly, however, and passes the incident off as an experimental phase. She still gets her trip to London, but now Evadne is forced to accompany her. Recently spurned by the man she admired and hoped to marry, Evadne is furious that her sister’s happiness was not wrecked too, though she tells herself that really she’s trying to look after her sister.

I found both sisters realistic, as they were so flawed and their constant misunderstanding of each other is understandably due to their age gap and opposite personalities. There were moments when I sided with Evadne and others with Dorina and then times where I thought they were both acting the fool. Lady Henry is also a compelling character, but one I think best revealed through reading the book. I will say I pictured her as Cate Blanchett!

The demons in this novel were presented in a way I’d never seen before. Rather than creatures evoked by performing some strange sacrifice, or ones that lurk in the shadows waiting to possess the innocent, these demons have to be cultivated by way of plants. I’m not 100% clear on how it works, actually, but it seems like certain plants have to be grown (ginger, for example) and then consumed, in order to create a connection with a demon. The demon then sort of inhabits a person’s mind, though without constant consumption of whatever the special food/plant/herb, the person would lose their connection. If this was a strong or long-term connection, losing it could prove to be fatal. In return, the demon grants something to whoever they inhabit (in addition to their constant mental presence) such as strength or enhanced senses.

I thought this was wonderfully done and it made it very easy to understand why there would be societies dedicated to deepening their bonds with the demons and also why so many “normal” people might turn out to be diabolists (the book’s word for those who commune with the demons). I should also add that the demons aren’t necessarily good or evil – they seek different things from the human world and they’re almost relatable.

If you enjoy Victorian novels with a touch of the paranormal (are demons paranormal? If not, then whatever genre they are. Is demonic a genre?) then I highly recommend this. I haven’t successfully read The Picture of Dorian Gray and while I do see some connection, I don’t think you have to be a fan of, or even know anything about, the original to enjoy this book. I look forward to reading more of Tanzer’s work!

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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