One of the nice things (usually) about reviewing is that you have the excuse to reread books. Sometimes that’s not such a good thing, if you’re committed to reviewing a book you absolutely hated. Other times, it’s bliss—to sink back into a world you loved.
The world of Wicked Gentlemen, by Ginn Hale, is a dark and brooding one, made up of equal parts Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm, with a splash of H.G. Wells and a healthy dollop of Wilkie Collins. The Gothic towers of Crowncross, the London-like city at the heart of the story, loom over a place almost entirely controlled by the Church, to the point that the higher professions—doctors, lawyers, bankers—are called “Orders,” and wear robes, and the police department are called the “Inquisitors.” The Church’s ascendence is due to an event from centuries before, when the literal Lords of Hell—the fallen angels of the Old Testament—came up from the depths of the Earth along with their demon hordes, and did penance for their evil before the altars of God.
These days, the descendants of these fallen angels and their demons live in the subterranean tunnels beneath the Holy City, in a place called by the Church “Hopetown,” but is more commonly called “Hells Below.” The Prodigals, the demon kind, can’t bear the light of day, but they have other talents, the legacy of their demonic past, talents the Church tries to control as they try to control the Prodigals themselves.
Wicked Gentlemen opens with the arrival of Captain William Harper, an Inquisitor, with his brother-in-law, at the shabby rooms of Belimai Sykes, a Prodigal prostitute addicted to the drug ophorium, an addiction he developed under the torturous “prayer wheels” of the House of Inquisition. The two are looking for a guide into the darkness of Hells Below, in search of Captain Harper’s sister, who has gone missing. He is also looking into the serial murder of several Prodigals, and suspects that they might be connected.
Harper, the fresh-faced dedicated Church officer, isn’t as blindly obedient nor as innocent as he seems, and Belimai, the seedy, cynical whore, hides a fierce loyalty and a longing for beauty that breaks your heart. They both have many secrets that they hide from the world and from each other, even as they fumble towards something resembling a relationship.
“Mr. Sykes and the Firefly” is the first story, told by Belimai in the first person point of view, and gradually opens up the world of Crowncross, unfolding it like a great old map with “Here Abide Dragons” marked on it. The story here deals with the serial murders. The second, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle,” is from Captain Harper’s third person perspective, and intertwined with the story of murder and corruption at the highest levels of the Church is the slowly blossoming love between Harper and Belimai, as the latter deals with his addictions and the former deals with the betrayal of his beliefs and the exposure of his past.
These stories are chillingly beautiful, and despite the Gothic setting and the haunting sadness that permeates such a dark place, still manage to maintain a sense of hope that Right will prevail. The characters of Harper and Belimai are as complex as the setting, light riddled with darkness and darkness longing for light, and despite their appearing to be polar opposites, are perfectly matched. There are touches of humor, mostly sarcastic, that lighten the tone, and the scenes of Belimai’s withdrawal at Harper’s home are full of hope and poignancy.
Wicked Gentlemen is a fairy tale, as dark and frightening and beautiful as the best of Grimm, and as truthful. It made me wish for more stories about Belimai Sykes and William Harper, and that is something I rarely do.
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