The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief “A diamond. A curse. An obsession.” These are the words on the front cover of Essie Fox’s third novel and they give us a good idea of the type of story we can expect to find inside. The Goddess and the Thief is a Victorian Gothic novel (like the previous two books by this author – The Somnambulist, which I’ve read, and Elijah’s Mermaid, which I haven’t) and combines a complex plot with an atmospheric setting and a sense of mystery.

The novel begins in colonial India, where a little girl called Alice Willoughby is growing up in the care of her beloved ayah, Mini, having lost her mother in childbirth. Alice loves India – she loves the warmth, the vivid colours, the stories Mini tells of Parvati and Shiva – and is heartbroken when her father decides to take her back to England to live with her Aunt Mercy. Alice is lonely and miserable in her new home and finds Mercy cold and uncaring. Things become even worse when she discovers that her aunt is a medium and that she will be forced to take part in Mercy’s fraudulent séances and other spiritualist activities.

Alice’s life reaches another turning point when she and Mercy meet the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury, a man who has recently returned from India and is planning to involve the two women in an elaborate scheme…a scheme revolving around the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the famous jewel claimed by the British at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war. Some say the diamond is cursed and others that it is blessed, but one thing that is certain is that it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes into contact with it.

You may be thinking that this sounds like The Moonstone, but while there are some similarities with the Wilkie Collins mystery, this is a very different book and the story surrounding the diamond took some surprising twists and turns which I definitely wasn’t expecting! I was particularly intrigued by the occasional appearances of Queen Victoria and the Maharajah Duleep Singh, two people for whom the Koh-i-Noor has a very important significance.

The scenes set in India at the beginning of the book were among my favourites and I was sorry when we left India behind for the gloom of Aunt Mercy’s house in Windsor. The mood of the novel then becomes increasingly dark and oppressive and I was pleased that tales of the Hindu gods and of Alice’s life in Lahore continued to be woven into the plot. I liked Alice as a central character and enjoyed following her adventures, while also feeling afraid and worried for her as she found herself betrayed, badly treated and unsure of whom to trust.

My only problem with The Goddess and the Thief was that there were certain passages which I found confusing and difficult to follow, partly because the use of opium played a role in the story, which meant that the boundaries between reality and unreality often became blurred. I appreciate that this was done intentionally, to make Alice’s situation even more frightening, but it was the one aspect of the novel that didn’t work very well for me. Of course, it could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough!

Having enjoyed both this book and The Somnambulist (this one slightly more than the first, I think), I will have to read Elijah’s Mermaid soon!

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

With my love of all things Victorian I had high hopes for this book, the debut novel by Essie Fox, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Somnambulist is a beautifully written story with memorable characters, an intricate plot and a distinctly gothic feel.

Phoebe Turner is a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in the East End of London. Her mother, Maud, a member of the Hallelujah Army, has done her best to keep Phoebe from sin and to protect her from what she considers to be the bad influence of her sister, Cissy. Phoebe, though, adores her glamorous Aunt Cissy and she is left devastated by her sudden death early in the novel.

Maud is struggling with the loss of Cissy’s income and when the wealthy Nathaniel Samuels offers Phoebe a position as companion to his wife, it seems this could be the solution to their financial problems. And so Phoebe leaves London behind and travels to Dinwood Court, the Samuels’ mansion in Herefordshire, where she begins to uncover some dark family secrets…

Essie Fox is the author of the Virtual Victorian blog and one thing that is very apparent in The Somnambulist is her knowledge and love of the Victorian period. It was interesting to read the author’s note at the back of the book in which she gives us some of the historical fact behind the fiction and lets us know which of the people and places mentioned in the novel are ones that really existed. I was impressed by the amount of period detail and the vivid descriptions which really brought the settings to life, particularly Wilton’s Music Hall and the magnificent Dinwood Court, two contrasting but equally well-drawn locations. The characters, too, are colourful and vibrant and Phoebe herself is a complex character who grows and develops as a person over the course of the novel.

I guessed one of the book’s big secrets almost from the beginning (a sign that I’ve read too many books of this type, maybe!) but that didn’t matter at all because I enjoyed watching Phoebe as she slowly pieced the parts of her history together. There were other surprises and twists that I didn’t see coming and overall I thought the story was very cleverly plotted. I also loved the sleepwalking theme which is indicated in the title and gently woven throughout the book with references to the Millais painting, The Somnambulist, which is widely believed to have been inspired by either the Wilkie Collins novel The Woman in White or the Bellini opera La Sonnambula. The story itself is often ghostly and dream-like and Phoebe’s world is a place where nothing is exactly as it seems.

The Somnambulist is an impressive debut novel and I’ll certainly look out for any future books from Essie Fox.

More new book arrivals

If the WordPress scheduling feature is working correctly, you should be reading this while I’m still in Dublin. I was hoping to be able to schedule lots of reviews for while I’m away (as I still have so many to catch up on from April and May) but for one reason or another that didn’t happen. So instead, here’s an update on some of the new books I’ve received recently.

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox – With my love of anything Victorian, I’m really looking forward to this book! It’s being getting excellent reviews and I can’t wait to start reading it.

Burned by Thomas Enger – I won this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. It’s the first in a new crime series set in Norway.

The House by the Sea by Santa Montefiore – I received this one unexpectedly from Simon & Schuster. I’ve never read anything by Montefiore so don’t know what to expect, but it looks like a good summer read.

Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson – Another one that’s being getting good reviews. This book was courtesy of Transworld Publishers who really deserve a word of praise for the imaginative marketing campaign that accompanied this book (more on that when I post my review!)

Have you read any of these yet?