Creatures of Will and Temper
by Molly Tanzer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books
Pub Date 14 Nov 2017
Molly Tanzer’s book, Creatures of Will and Temper, is described as “A Victorian urban fantasy featuring duelists, demons, and the dark arts, inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It is all that and more. I picked it up because of the nod to Oscar Wilde’s classic. I read Wilde’s book in college, more than thirty-five years ago, and remember the broad strokes of the story but not the fine details. Tanzer’s story uses that basic level familiarity and builds a new story with great characters.
The main characters are sisters, Evadne and Dorina Gray. They are eighteen and seventeen years old respectively. They live in the country and are upper class. Evadne is dutiful, conservative and the bane of her younger sister. Dorina is a risk taker, rule breaker and fed up with her sister tattling to her parents. Dorina is a lesbian and enjoys a series of girlfriends, all under the radar because of the societal rules at the time.
Dorina is planning on spending time with her Uncle Basil in London, a renowned painter. Dorina is thinking of being an art critic so spending time with her uncle should be educational. After Evadne tattles on Dorina’s latest relationship, she finds herself being sent to London as her sister’s keeper. Neither sister is happy with the situation or each other.
Once they arrive in London, the story really takes off. Their uncle is mourning his friend and lover, Oliver. Oliver’s sister takes Dorina to see the museums of London and meet the people who appreciate the art Dorina will one day be writing about. Evadne finds herself becoming more confident when she finds a fencing master and pursues her passion for fencing. There are demons in London. They are not the horns and pitchfork variety. Like London itself, these demons are complex and all with their own agendas. Evadne and Dorina encounter the demons in very different ways with very different reactions to them.
There are several facets of this book I really enjoyed. One was the fencing. For over ten years, I was a fencing parent. The sections of the book detailing the salle, the weapons, the tactics, the smelly fencing whites after an afternoon of bouting, were a joy to read. The other facet I enjoyed was the relationship between Evadne and Dorina. It is a very realistic depiction of sisters close in age but far apart in temperament. Their relationship evolves over the course of the book. Like the two characters evolution, it is not straightforward or smooth. It has fits and starts as in real life.
I recommend Creatures of Will and Temper. It kept me engaged. Gave me characters I cared about. Alternated action sequences with character exploration. Molly Tanzer has created a fantastic book with strong female protagonists.