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Creatures of Will & Temper
by Molly Tanzer
Mariner Books, $16.99, 358 pp
Published: November 2017

The exquisitely written Creatures of Will and Temper is a variation on a theme, the theme being Dorian Gray’s exploration of the senses and his deal with a demonic power to facilitate this experimentation — itself a variation of the Faust tale — with an unusual twist. In the Author’s Note, Tanzer asks the question, “But what if Dorian had no victims? What if his quest for aesthetic experiences was not portrayed as a journey into a moral and spiritual underworld? … Oscar Wilde once described Dorian Gray as a ‘fantastic variation’ on Joris-Karl Huysman’s amoral, decadent novel Against the Grain. In that tradition, Creatures of Will and Temper is a fantastic variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray, — or at least one envisioned through a glass… not darkly, but brightly.”

So here is a non-tragic, or not too tragic, version of the famous story. There is still a portrait, and it has quasi-magical properties; but instead of one Dorian there are two sisters. Evadne Gray is socially and physically awkward, only truly at ease when she can practice sword fighting; the much younger Dorina is lovely, confident, practiced at manipulating people, and at seventeen already a successful sensualist with a string of discreet conquests among the young ladies of their town.

After a wretched disappointment, Evadne proves the truth of the maxim “Misery loves company” by telling their mother what Dorina has been doing, in the hope that their mother will cancel Dorina’s pending visit to their uncle to London. Instead, Evadne is ordered to accompany Dorina to act as her chaperone. Evadne’s only consolation is that a friend refers her to a London fencing academy and gives her a letter of introduction.

Their uncle is the artist Basil Hallward, and he is friends with Lady Henry Wotton, a wealthy and eccentric aesthete. (These names and relationships are directly based on two characters in Oscar Wilde’s story.)  Lady Henry’s twin brother was the subject of a painting Basil is just completing. There is some sort of secret that Lady Henry and Basil share, and it has something to dos with her brother’s death; Basil warns Lady Henry not to have a corrupting influence on his nieces, due to arrive shortly. Lady Henry assures him she shall be a model of propriety — mostly.

Indeed, she exerts herself to make them welcome, but Evadne takes an intense dislike to her. Dorina, on the other hand, is fascinated by the older woman, and their shared love of art becomes the basis for a fast friendship. Since Evadne cannot bear Lady Henry’s company, the sisters have a terrible falling out.

So while Lady Henry and Dorina go to museums, galleries, and gardens, Evadne presents herself to the Westminster Fencing Academy. There she makes a favorable impression on the owner, Mr. Perkins, and his senior student and assistant teacher, George Cantrell.  

Gradually, both sisters become enthralled, Dorina by Lady Henry, Evadne by George Cantrell. Separately, each sister also discovers that demons are real, and they offer humans powers of perception and physical enhancements — for a price. Lady Henry and her circle of friends have struck bargains that allow them to experience beauty more keenly. George leads a fellowship of fencing students on a quest to destroy demons that beguile humans into committing atrocities.

It would seem both sisters have found happiness and purpose, right? Unfortunately, Evadne tells George how she has a bad feeling around Lady Henry and her associates, and he deduces that her sensitivity is detecting a demonic presence, one he is determined to eradicate. This sets the two camps, the one aesthetic and the other militant, on a collision course.

Creatures of Will and Temper is wonderful: light gothic, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, with vivid characters, strong relationships, and very distinct perspectives. Readers who delight in the Victorian era as a setting, whether for Holmesian mysteries, Steampunk stories, or Gothic adventure, are likely to find this a captivating, and certainly enjoyable new discovery. For all that it owes to Faust and Dorian Gray, this is one of the most original fantasy novels it has ever been my pleasure to read. Tanzer is quite a talented storyteller.    – Chris Wozney

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