Book Review: The Quick by Lauren Owen

This book surprised me. I was surprised to find a first time novelist who could balance so many characters and tensions so skillfully. I was surprised that there hasn’t been more hype over Lauren Owen’s debut. And I was surprised because the blurb on the book jacket is so completely not what this book is about.

The description on the cover is that Charlotte Norbury, while searching for her missing brother James, delves in to the dark recesses of London and crosses paths with a very exclusive gentlemen’s club. In reality, that’s only a small portion of the plot.

We begin with Charlotte and James’ childhood. Isolated and lonely, they are close siblings with Charlotte hoping to always protect her sensitive younger brother. A few years into the future, James has moved to London with the dream of becoming a writer, while Charlotte, being female, is left to live quietly with an elderly aunt. James finds happiness in an unexpected place and then disappears.

It’s here that the novel takes an unexpected turn into darker and more fantastical places. (Personally, I think the reveal comes too early in the novel to be called a “twist” but some have referred to it as such.) To be honest, I’m not sure whether I would have read The Quick if I had known what it was really about and so I’m reluctant to share more because I don’t want others to miss out. That said, most of the book takes place after this reveal so I’m not sure how to talk about the plot otherwise. Consider yourself warned.

The gentlemen’s club at the centre of the novel turns out to be a very exclusive group of vampires. Charlotte enters London after James disappears, only to stumble across the truth of these immortal men. She meets a team of vampire hunters, as well as one of the only men to escape the club alive (as opposed to undead).

Outlined like this, the story might sound dangerously cheesy, especially in our post-Twilight world. Fortunately, Owen is skilled enough to avoid the cheese and cliches that plague so many vampire stories. While vampires may dwell in the dark shadows of fantasy, Owen gives them as realistic a setting as possible here. This is Jack the Ripper London, where the impoverished die anonymously and wealth and a good family name has the ability to hide shocking things. These vampires have many of the classic traits – increased strength, sensitivity to light – but fewer of the really fantastical. No one turns into a bat. Everyone has a reflection. And Owen weaves in a fascinating question of morality. Two factions of the undead offer differing views on ethics, free will, and what can be done with immortality. Owen uses these two vampire groups – one a gentlemen’s club, the other made up largely of undead street urchins – to raise questions of poverty and privilege.

There’s a theme here too of sibling relationships. Not just Charlotte and James (though it’s nice to see a sibling relationship rather than a romantic one at the core of a plot) but two sets of brothers around whom much of the action hinges.

I don’t think I can call a story about vampires realistic but if vampires existed in the late 19th century, our world would probably look something like The Quick.

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