This is the first novel, though not the first joint production, from the team of Amber Benson, who played Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Christopher Golden, author of (I am told) several of the better Buffy novels and much else besides. In this, the first of a promised series of novels picking up the characters and settings from the BBC webcast stories by the same authors, siblings William and Tamara (not, repeat, not Willow and Tara) are the chosen Protectors of Albion, magically gifted teenagers charged with protecting their country from its supernatural enemies (so it is completely different from any other story or TV series you may have encountered). The year is 1839; they have three ghostly allies, Lord Byron, Lord Nelson, and Bodicea; their father, possessed by a demon, is locked in the attic; and they must defeat a sinister force threatening to destroy Britain (I suspect not for the first or last time).
This probably falls in the category of harmless fun rather than Great Literature, and will no doubt go down well with its target teen-goth audience. One striking point is the positive portrayal of the young female characters, Tamara and Sophia, William's girlfriend, as sexually confident, in comparison with William's repressed insecurity. (There are assertive men in the book, but they are either demonically possessed rapists or dead like Lord Byron and the vampire Nigel Townsend or just embarrassed like Tamara's suitor John Haversham.) It's a refreshing riposte to the Victorian (and later) portrayal of female sexuality as fundamentally irrational and evil.
Our baddies, on the other hand, are much more conventional. The villain has hit on a method of populating London with demons by transforming her male victims into reptilian creatures which then forcibly impregnate women with their evil spawn, leading to some particularly gruesome scenes. Indeed, in general the descriptive writing is pretty vivid, and the evocation of the atmosphere of 1830s London largely credible, though not always done with great deftness of pacing; furthermore, the American authors are not always successful in their efforts to capture the literary style of the period.
Having said that the setting is credibly evocative, there are times when it feels curiously divorced from history. It's striking that although Byron and Nelson, two of the three ghostly allies of the Protectors of Albion, had died only a few years before the story is set, they are treated as characters as distantly historical as the misspelt Bodicea. At one point we are told that Tamara reminds Nelson of his daughter, Horatia. If he wants to be reminded of his daughter (who was born in 1801 and lived to be eighty), why not pop down to Tenterden in Kent to visit her and his eight grandchildren?
But the most jarring notes in the book are struck by our old friends, race and class. The demonic plague infesting London has been hitting Indian immigrants for weeks, but only when it hits their aristocratic social group do our protagonists tackle it. They undertake a brief fact-finding mission to a wholly unconvincingly portrayed India. One senses the authors trying to grapple with the evils of the colonial system but finding their hearts are not in it; much better to stick to fictional and supernatural nastiness. It turns out that the entire plot is a rivalry between a nice Indian mage who is willing to cooperate with his colonial masters and the sinister forces of evil who want to overthrow them and have India rule England instead.
Let us hope that nobody will believe this book as a historical guide to England's relationship with India, which we are told is "a conquered nation under the rule of British generals" (and properly explaining the errors in that brief sentence would take an article the length of this review). Readers of a more revolutionary cast of mind may wonder why raising an army of supernatural creatures to destroy the British royal family and end colonial rule is necessarily such a Bad Thing. But we are not the target audience. Its intended crowd will enjoy it, and maybe some of them will have their interest sufficiently piqued to read more, and better, books about the period.
Nicholas Whyte works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and reads SF unashamedly.