by Ronald L. Smith
Clarion Books, 2017
Middle Grade (13 and up)
Jessamine Grace is a helper in her mother’s sham Victorian era seances.
One night she has a legitimate supernatural event occur. Jessamine is the recipient of a message signed only by the mysterious initial ‘M.’
“Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!”
Jessamine’s mother Cora is surprisingly concerned about the message, and rushes her to visit an old family friend named Balthazar, who turns out to be a baron. His wealthy estate makes a welcome visit for Jess, who has lost her father –and his income– in a patriarchal society, leaving Jess and her mother to scrape out a living offering bogus seances. Later it is revealed that Jessamine’s father Alexander died fighting the powerful Necromancer Malachai Grimstead, and the evil sect named M (so called after Mephistophles from Faust,) wants revenge for this heinous act.
But when Bathazar declares that he is of the fae and a member of The League of Ravens, Jessamine begins to doubt her sanity. Her gift of mesmerism, reading other people’s minds, would an asset to the secret band of warriors, and she is asked to join. But that would mean leaving her mother.
Traditionally, mesmerist is another word for hypnotist– someone with animal magnetism, a special kind of charisma that allows one to entrance people. Franz (Anton) Mesmer did ground-breaking research in the field of influencing people that also led to the wonderfully frightening story of Svengali, a mesmerist who used his powers for evil, to manipulate and bend a beautiful woman named Trilby to his will.
In this world, the author uses the term Mesmerist to differentiate the real supernatural skill held by a mind-reader or mentalist from those who have mastery of other gifts such as those of the other members of The League of Ravens: Emily, a light-bringer who calls upon Bran the Blessed of Welsh mythology and Gabe, who can soothe and influence people’s emotions with his magic harp and enchanting voice. Oh– and Darby, Balthazar’s servant at 17 Wadsworth Place… is a Werewolf.
Jessamine soon becomes an expert with the lash as her weapon and better learns to control her psychic ability. She practices blindfolded, Balthazar asking, “What am I holding now?” like a stage mentalist’s assistant.
Lash, compass and a vial of holy water carried in a satchel are all she needs to kill a demon. Those and a few good friends.
I’m expected to use these? To kill creatures, like a ruffian?
Like Smith’s first book, we learn a bit about folk magic– wolfsbane is introduced as arnica montana, (the same stuff mom gives you when you bruise your elbow.) More acurately, aconita (monkshood) is the traditional wolfsbane, but don’t go eating that. It truly doesn’t agree with us mortal humans.
After the League kills a ghoul using their special talents, the leader of the necromancers, pale white with black hair and glowing red eyes, rises from the dead. It is her Father’s murderer, Malachi. And he’s not done hurting Jess quite yet.
“In ancient times, a darkling was a child born with a black soul. Like yours, Jessamine. Death is drawn to you– your father, your dear mother.” He raises his head higher and thrusts out his chin. “Stand by my side, darkling, and I will show you how to walk beyond death. I can teach you beautiful things. Terrible, beautiful things.”
The rosy sickness strikes London and Red Xs are painted on doors. Bodies are found drained of blood in the slums– Is this M’s secret plot? And what do the rats have to do with it? Angry mobs are stirred to hate and begin attacking foreigners.
Darby is taken in the night, an M scrawled on her bedroom wall. Jess turns again to the spirit board to track down the evil shadow with red eyes while the magical Balthazar has gone far away. There will be no cavalry to save them.
This is a fast-paced book, with so much action I am still looking forward to some deeper character development in future sequels. The book is light on the spiritualism I was expecting. It does begin with a nod to sham seance parlors, but the story rapidly explodes into a secret society of demon-fighters, backed by the magic of the Fair Folk, entrenched in a life-or-death struggle with ghouls and necromancers who want nothing more than to murder the entire city of London. Jessamine’s use of holy water and a compass is a classy addition to the story. A girl in crinoline with a lash who has been scratched by a werewolf. It would lend itself well to animation. Don’t skip this supernatural adventure!
The fire will still come!
Psychics & Seances: