The Quick

London, 1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing-rooms of high society, and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Unnerved, his sister, Charlotte, sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine city that greets her, she uncovers a secret world at the margins populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of one of the country’s preeminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the most ambitious, and most dangerous, men in England. (from the book jacket)

NOTE: This is a discussion of a group read, so it’s a lot more spoilery than the usual BookishDark review. Proceed at your own risk!

Before tackling the questions, I want to say I’m so glad I decided to join the Peril of the Group Read this year–I really enjoyed this book! I don’t know how I managed to miss the furore over it when it came out; there was apparently quite the to-do over not revealing the big twist of the book. I don’t know how soon I would have caught on to the vampire presence, if I hadn’t been expecting them from the start.

1. What genre (or genres) would you say THE QUICK falls into? What genre or author influences do you see in this book?
Historical fiction, horror, and gothic romance. I saw nods to Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, and perhaps a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle.

2. Emily Richter figures into many of the book’s most pivotal early scenes. How much do you think she knows or doesn’t know about James and Christopher, and about Eustace’s change?
I think she has a strong suspicion about James and Christopher, but I’d be very surprised if she knew anything about the vampires. I think she just had a good instinct about people, and was perhaps a bit protective of James and Christopher, and saw Eustace as the more common sort of threat to their relationship–a disapproving elder with the ability to ruin James, if necessary, to keep Christopher away from him.

There’s an interesting contrast to be drawn between Emily as “woman of the world” and Charlotte as “sheltered country girl”, because Charlotte ends up knowing a heck of a lot about a world that Emily’s only on the edge of.

3. Did you notice the repetition of owls? What’s up with that?
Classically, owls are a symbol of wisdom, associated with the Goddess Athena–and the Aegolius Club certainly seemed to think they were wise and ancient and eternal. Plus, there’s the whole traveling only by night and swooping down on their prey piece. I’m sure they thought it was a very clever reference to their changed nature.

It’s also foreshadowing: James is marked out by the owls from the first page–they torment him from the walls of the nursery, and from outside the windows. And who protects him from the owls? Big sister Charlotte.

4. Characters agree to the Exchange for different reasons. Are there any reasons that would tempt you to join the Aegolius Club?
Oh, well, you know…eternal life means all the time in the world to read everything you want, right? A nice, quiet, bookish life, interrupted by the occasional hunt for human blood…oh, right. No, it seems tempting to have the strength and power of the vampire, but the downsides are really awful. How depressed or narcissistic would you have to be to actually make that bargain?

5. Why do you think Mrs. Price turns children? How does their group compare to other family units in the book?
They’re probably easier to catch in the first place, and then easier to control after the change. Mrs. Price’s “family” is an obvious reference to Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist, although they also put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes’ “Baker Street Irregulars”, the children he used as spies and messengers, because the street kids of Victorian London were so invisible. They slip through crowds and in and out of places so easily, and aren’t enough trouble for most people to pay any attention to.

Like other family units in the book, they’re linked by blood and necessity. Charlotte and James have only each other in all the world; the Bier brothers and the Paige brothers have their conflicts, but can’t give up on each other because of family ties. The most interesting family unit in the whole book, for my money, is Shadwell and Swift. Their link is a lost loved one, and they’ve clung together out of shared grief and a drive for vengeance–which warms up into a most complicated love between them. They were achingly interesting; I’d like to have a book all about their lives and adventures.

6. Why do the Club members refer to the living as the “Quick”?
One of the old meanings of “quick” is alive, and it’s pun on the shortness of the mortal life, compared to the vampire’s longevity. There’s another great bit of wordplay in the Alia calling themselves the “undid.” It’s a beautiful coinage–are they mispronouncing “undead”, or do they actually mean they are “undone”, i.e., ruined? It works both ways, and I just love it.

7. How does Mould change over the course of the book? Do you think he remains a man of science to the end?
Oh, Mould, you silly man! What is worse, to make the Exchange and surrender your humanity, or to be led on by the promise of the Exchange for decades, and lose your humanity with nothing to show for it? I liked Mould as a literary device–his diary entries filled in the picture for us of what the Club was up to, and any vampire set on dominating London needs a Renfield, right? As a character, he’s both evil and tragic. A man of science to the end? No, I think he stopped being a scientist somewhere in the middle; he continued making the motions of science, but he was a fanatic and a fool, unswervingly loyal the man who promised him everything, but only used him up, draining him to the very last drop.

8. Charlotte’s quiet life is altered drastically by the book’s events. In what ways does it change for the better?
She’s not mouldering away in a crumbling house in the country, acting as nursemaid and gardener and withering away into spinsterhood. She learned more about the world than she might have wanted, and she suffered terrible losses, but she also found love and happiness–and that wasn’t likely to come knocking on the door of Aiskew Hall.

9. Had you heard of a priest hole before reading THE QUICK? Why do you think Owen chose to begin and end the book there?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve read a lot of English history, and the Tudor period is a particular favorite. Plus, they feature as a plot device in any number of British mysteries–the killer is always hiding away in a priest hole, escaping through a priest hole, or stashing the murder weapon/loot/etc. in a priest hole.

The childhood accident foreshadows the fate of both James and Charlotte. More than that, it has a cradle-to-grave imagery. Here’s the child, accidentally locked away in a hidey-hole meant to preserve life; here is the wasted, ill, hunted vampire, being locked away to protect him from those who would destroy him. Full circle; do we really make any progress in life, or do we all go back to where we began?

10. The ending of THE QUICK seems to beg for a sequel. What do you think about it?
I’m in! We can be pretty sure James didn’t get out on his own–even if Charlotte’s ritual wasn’t 100% effective in putting him into vampire-stasis, the hole itself has him trapped. So who found him–friend or foe? Did they do away with him, or set him free? And if he’s free, what is he going to do with his restored un-life? Dun dun DUN!!

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Image courtesy of Abigail Larson, used by permission.

Image courtesy of Abigail Larson, used by permission.

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