Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Will and Temper may take inspiration and cues from Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Tanzer gives us more than just a gender-switched retelling. Creatures of Will and Temper charts a different path for the central characters that guarantees a different resolution—and therefore some surprises for the reader familiar with Wilde’s original. The novel also features a depth of world-building that Wilde’s short novel lacks.
Wilde starts his novel with Lord Henry Wotton purposefully giving his impressionable young friend Dorian Gray a “hedonistic French novel” that inspires Dorian to live for the moment, and for the experience, with no real concern for the effects his actions have on others. The magic that preserves, via Basil Hallward’s portrait, Dorian’s youth and beauty despite his callous and evil deeds is simply an accepted underpinning of Wilde’s work but is never really explored, nor directly connected to Wotton’s gift in any way. Tanzer, on the other hand, moves the book giving to just past the halfway point of her novel, changes the situation from a purposeful gift to an accidental revelation, and connects the book intimately to the magical world-building that supports and enhances her story.
For two of the three main characters, indeed, the story starts well before they become aware of the existence of actual demons and the tenets of diabolism. Evadne and Dorina Gray live on a country estate where Evadne practices fencing while pining for proper married life with her best friend Freddie; Dorina has quiet affairs with her female classmates while dreaming of being an art critic in London. Evadne’s repayment for spitefully reporting Dorina’s latest indiscretion to their parents is to be named chaperone for Dorina’s first trip to visit their artist uncle, Basil, in London. Respectable, proper Evadne is at a loss when Dorina begins to spend all of her time with Uncle Basil’s rich, unconventional friend Lady Henrietta “Henry” Wotton—until she finds her way to a fencing school recommended by her unrequited love, Freddie. When Dorina and Evadne both discover Lady Henry’s involvement with London’s hidden diabolist culture, things come to a dangerous and potentially unpleasant head.
Dorina, Evadne, and Lady Henry are three very distinct and equally strong female leads, although it takes the story a little while to prove to the reader that Dorina isn’t just a flighty, horny teenager who is in over her head. Each woman starts the novel with a goal. For Evadne, it’s marriage to a proper and socially acceptable man, with fencing as her unconventional side hobby. Dorina’s aim is for an idealized, hedonistic, and unfettered life in London as an art critic. Lady Henry, meanwhile, prizes being her own woman, and enjoying before it burns her out the enhanced aesthetic sense which the demon bond provides. As the novel progresses, each woman grows in ways they don’t expect and finds herself with modified goals: Evadne comes to realize the right man isn’t necessarily the most proper one, Dorina that she doesn’t want to critique art but rather intimately appreciate it, and Lady Henry no longer wants to be alone and aloof.
The character growth is natural and progresses out of the action. And for once, it’s the men who are sacrificed, in a manner of speaking, to spur the women’s growth, instead of vice versa: love-interest Freddie breaks Evadne’s heart and promptly disappears from the story, fencing instructor George breaks her trust and provides the dramatic arc of the final act, and the death (before the novel begins) of Lady Henry’s brother drives her arc, and also distracts Uncle Basil from what is going on with his nieces, thus affecting their lives as well. Most of these men (especially Basil and George) are well fleshed out, but they’re still here primarily to service and support the women’s stories.
Whether the author intended it or not, the three women map well onto the classic feminine “maiden, mother, crone” archetypes. Young, passionate Dorina is the maiden: full of vigor, curious about the world to the point of incautiousness, the embodiment of libido-without-thought-of-consequence (a trait she shares with her Wildean namesake). Evadne, significantly older than her younger sister, is the mother: protector/defender almost to a fault, with a heart that’s full to bursting. Lady Henry, though she looks younger than her years, is the crone: wielder of knowledge hard-won through life experience, however difficult she may find the act of sharing it. The men match and distort the archetype: Freddie’s flighty lack of awareness of Evadne’s feelings mirrors Dorina’s lack of concern for consequences, George’s true motives pervert Evadne’s protective urges into a selfish greed, and the demonic knowledge that motivates Lady Henry breaks and enfeebles Basil. Tanzer plays with these archetypes, and their male counters, teasing the connections right up to the final pages without making them the focus of the reader’s attention.
The characters’ growth within the plot is at the forefront, supported by the wonderful world-building. Most of the urban fantasies I’ve read which are set in the past are really alternate history, with the supernatural often known if not by the general public then at least by the powers that be. Tanzer sets her story in an authentic Victorian London that looks just like the world outside our window did a century and a half ago. The most which the average person in this story knows of “demons” is what they’ve garnered from church sermons.
Demonology, or diabolism, is in this world an urban legend, except for the relative few in the know, and all of them guard the secret pretty jealously: joining Lady Henry’s “aesthetic appreciation society” is not an easy task, no matter how much one might want to. The mechanics of bonding with demons are laid out in chapter heading quotes from a text called “On the Summoning of Demons” (the book that accidentally ends up in Dorina’s hands just as Lady Henry is about to end their involvement). The bonding is infused with details of smell and sight which repeat and multiply throughout the novel. The nature of the demons (other-dimensional entities that perhaps veer more towards the Lovecraftian in aspect than the Judeo-Christian), and the effects of bonding with them, are teased increasingly through the novel until the final act makes both benefits and costs all too clear.
This careful world-building is as much a character as the novel’s city of London and the people who populate it, and one hopes the upcoming sequel, Creatures of Want and Ruin, will reveal even more—given that it becomes clear that the wants and needs of the demons are as diverse as those of the humans they act upon. Creatures of Will and Temper is a more than worthy successor to its source material, part tribute, especially with the flashes of Wildean wit in Lady Henry’s dialogue, but fully its own creature in the end.