The gas-lit glamour of the Victorian age is a frequent backdrop for stories of women struggling against oppression. But what if a woman had supernatural abilities, or the chance to acquire them? Two new works of historical fantasy answer that question, weaving compelling tales of empowerment—literal and otherwise.
Set in the fictional country of Levrene, which resembles belle epoque France save for a small portion of the population has telekinetic abilities, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones is an elegantly paced novel that moves its characters into place with ease, with careful attention paid to ways a word or a moment can change an entire life.
Drenched in beautiful imagery that brings to mind the dreamy aesthetic of art nouveau, The Beautiful Ones begins as Antonina Beaulieu arrives in the capital city of Loisail for her first debutante season. She’d much rather be back home in the country, where she can pursue her interests in the natural world and use her telekinetic powers without fear of judgment. But Nina is dutiful and dreams of romance, so she submits to her cousin’s glamorous wife Valérie and tries to transform herself into a lady. When the successful telekinetic entertainer Hector Auvray begins to court her, his wealth and good breeding is enough to overwhelm her family’s reservations about his common birth, and Nina is quickly enamored of him. But unbeknownst to Nina or anyone else, Hector and Valérie were once engaged.
Relentless and ferociously intelligent, Valérie is sympathetic even as her actions grow monstrous. Groomed from birth to marry for money in order to restore her family’s faded status, Valérie has rejected every part of her self that cannot be used in service to that goal. Moreno-Garcia takes care to illustrate the ways in which Nina is only free to do as she pleases due to her money and her indulgent relatives, leaving the reader with no choice but to acknowledge that Valérie’s hatred of the younger woman stems from both a legitimate grievance and psychological self-preservation. She loathes Nina and often Hector as well, because acknowledging that she carved any trace of innocence and hope out of herself is just too daunting, and damning, to contemplate.
As a foil to Valérie, Nina initially seems more concept than character, a naïve and good-hearted girl doomed to serve as a pawn between Hector and Valérie. But as her youthful passion and curiosity bloom into hard-won wisdom and self-possession, Moreno-Garcia’s narration from her perspective grows more complex, more layered with memory and forethought. The Beautiful Ones captures a young woman in the process of self-creation, looking down on herself from above for the first time, deciding which aspects of her society she will accept, and which she will quietly refuse. Nina’s embrace of and increasing skill with her telekinetic abilities, despite the censure of upper-class society, is a perfect encapsulation of her growth as a character. She’s literally becoming empowered. Moreno-Garcia carefully tracks each participant in the love triangle with this same attention to detail. As the three step toward and away from each other, she roots each movement in individual character development. For each of them, the choice of who they will love is a question of who they will allow themselves to love—whether they will be what society believes they should be, or who they, desperately, hope to be.
Questions of identity and the price of conformity also haunt Creatures of Will and Temper, Molly Tanzer’s urban fantasy set in Victorian London. Tanzer takes the iconic characters of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, gender swaps a few of them and then throws in a fencing school and demonology for good measure. The execution isn’t as pulpy as one would immediately assume, which does lead to a few unanswered questions about the exact nature of the supernatural elements at play. However, Tanzer draws her characters so precisely, and has such fun playing with the themes of Dorian Gray and other novels of the era, that any quibbles are easily waved away.
The decadent Lord Henry becomes Lady Henry (short for Henrietta), a glamorous aesthete in perfectly tailored men’s suits. When introduced to Dorina Gray on the young girl’s first trip to London, Henry is charmed by her enthusiasm and intelligence but resolves not to act on their mutual attraction, or tell Dorina anything about her more unorthodox pursuits—namely that she and a number of her friends host a demon in their bodies. Demon is a bit of a misnomer, as the beings in Tanzer’s novel are from an alternate world, rather than a Judeo-Christian hell. The specific demon that resides within Henry is devoted to sensory experiences above all else, making it the perfect match for Wilde’s decadent philosophy, represented here (as in Dorian Gray) by Henry. By creating and appreciating beauty in all its forms, Henry and her cadre are actually and truly communing with the eternal, literalizing the aim of aestheticism in a canny bit of genre translation.
A swaggering lady demonologist, who is rightfully viewed with utter adoration by her decades-younger love interest, is obviously a delight to come across. But Tanzer’s most intriguing character may be the determinedly conventional Evadne Gray, Dorina’s older sister. Evadne insists on proper behavior despite her very improper devotion to fencing, and immediately disapproves of Henry and Dorina’s friendship.
Tanzer sketches the complicated relationship between the Gray sisters with remarkable empathy and equanimity. Evadne is shy and not conventionally beautiful, unlike the gregarious Dorina, and Tanzer establishes in deft strokes how Evadne’s insecurity has calcified into snobbery and standoffishness. Dorina reacts with scorn whenever Evadne tries to control her behavior, as she cannot help but see it as judgment and rejection. Yet for all her snobbery, Evadne has a forthright, charming Victorian nobility to her, and protects Dorina with all the fervor of a medieval knight. Tanzer wisely ensures that the love between the two sister is never in doubt—rather, they’re unable to honestly communicate with each other due to years of unintended and imagined slights. This central bond between sisters is the backbone of Creatures of Will and Temper, and woven all throughout are poignant observations on love, art and the cost of freedom. With an attention to descriptive detail and an emphasis on seizing the pleasures of life, Creatures of Will and Temper is a twist on a classic tale that would have made Wilde proud.