A delightfully scary meld of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery, with the best qualities of them all, Netherworld is book one in a trilogy by the indomitable Lisa Morton. I wanted a touch of steampunk in this novel as well, but the elements it did have were enough to almost make me want to sleep with the lights on.
Morton writes in a satisfyingly shadowy way, starting her book in the Western World and then blending in the back story, moving with aplomb between Victorian era England, India, China and Los Angeles. The main cast consists of the Lady Diana Furnaval, widowed at a young age, her guardian watch-cat Mina, the enigmatic scholar Steven, and her sidekick, the doughty Chinese sailor Yi-kin. Each of these characters turns up in the nick of time as her journeys progress.
Each personality quickly takes on a three-dimensional persona. The reader grows with the story and learns much about the Netherworld, Gateways and the Lord's Prayer, chanted backwards. There are 81 gateways, and Lady Furnaval is determined to close them all. At the beginning of the story, she has managed to close six.
Most of the novel surrounds Furnaval's travels and experiences gate-closing. There is not much written about the actual battle scenes with the horrific monsters, which our protagonist seems to overpower with ease and little damage to herself. Her fellow travelers each have their own skills and areas of competence, and although Furnaval misses her husband, who was once her companion in seeking out the unholy portals, she is well before her time in her clothing, her habits, and her perspectives. There are several sidebar-type rants about prejudice and the treatment of the Chinese globe-wide, which seemed distracting and not really much help in furthering the plot.
We discover that her husband is only presumed dead, and the lovely, mysterious "widow" is subliminally hoping that somewhere in her travels, she will find him once again. The clever cat Mina has knowledge beyond her cat body, and she is definitive in her likes and dislikes and her ability to lead the way to gateways. The scholar Steven is equally unusual, and perhaps not even human. And Yi-kin is enigmatic and bound to his Chinese roots, wherever they travel.
It is a great adventure to explore the 1880s with this intrepid band of misfits, and once one can let go of the "normal" Victorian age, it is easy to see the remarkable research and information presented about causes as broad as workers' rights and industrial improvements and the plight of small children forced to labor for long hours for little payment. The dialog and storyline keep up the pace, presenting the scary and the profane along with the mundane and the predictable.
I look forward to the rest of the trilogy, and hope Morton's unique perspective of the world during Victorian times continues to thrill and chill her readers.
Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, award-winning prose writer, and Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association's Readers' Advisory Guide to Horror as "consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening". She has won numerous awards for her writing and her website.
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