Book 1 of The Oversight Trilogy
Released: May 6, 2014
There is no city that stand as a hingepoint for the mixing of the mundane and supernatural than London, England. Whether it be historical relations between man and fey (such as in Marie Brennan’s “Onyx Court” series), the modern day interaction of upper and lower London (Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), the simple juxtaposition of “muggle” life and the wizarding life (the Harry Potter series) or the criminal subjugation of the will of man at the whim of normally hidden forces (as in Paul Cornell’s London Falling and The Severed Streets), London has been a focal point in the struggle of keeping humans and those beings of magick in balance.
In the opening novel of Charlie Fletcher’s new supernatural trilogy, The Oversight, we are introduced to a Victorian London that houses not only the human and the “supranatural”, but also the organization that buffers the two by policing adherence to “the Law and the Lore”, which states that those with special abilities cannot prey upon those who don’t. The Oversight (or, more properly, The Free Company for the Regulation and Oversight of Recondite Exigency and Supranatural Lore) are organized into bands of five, called Hands.
In The Oversight, young Lucy Harker finds herself in an Oversight safe house after being “sold” to “the Jew” who purportedly likes “girls who scream”. The Jew is actually Miss Sara Falk, a genteel, gentle glinter – someone who can see the histories of walls and landscapes by touching them – and who runs the Safe House (bequeathed to her by her legendary father) as one of the last Hand still active, along with Mr. Sharp, their protector and sentinel, Cook, who used to be a pirate and excels in weaponry as well as cooking, Hodge, a ratcatcher who along with his terrier, Jed, hunts down oathbreaking creatures and all sorts of supernatural n’er-do-wells, and the Smith, keymaker and wise counselor. Oh, and Emmet, a golem, unthinking protector made of earth.
Lucy is also a glint, but she is not knowledgeable of her gift nor of the other, supernatural side of London even though (unbeknownst to her) she has been finagled into the Safe House by forces bent on making profit from the dissolution of the last Hand. While there she is both comforted and frightened – and strangely compelled to steal an object of great power hidden in the house. But plans go awry and Lucy is magically transported to a far different place where she must not only use the partial information she has been given but also trust in her own wits to determine whom to trust and where to go when the entire world seems set against her.
The now compromised Hand is determined to uphold their promise to protect Lucy, although their own situation is dire. Mr. Sharp makes a dangerous attempt to follow the girl in the magical passage she has taken, while the others pursue immediate threats in London, threats to their own wellbeing and to the unknowing populace. We as readers are also introduced to the shadowy forces hunting Lucy and determined to thwart the Hand, and they are indeed frightening; both the Sluagh – Night Hosts, Shadowgangers – wild and lawless ruffians of the north – and the slickly urbane Templebane twins and their crew of street urchins (“adopted children”) whose family have for generations named themselves as witch hunters for profit and power. It’s hard to decide which are more frightening. Not since Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar have I read of a more squirm-inducing villainous duo, although the Templebanes are more manipulative than visceral. Still, they are unnerving in a decidedly Dickensian fiendish way.
The atmosphere of The Oversight is outstanding. Word choice, turns of phrase, descriptions, all bring to life a London full of shadows and mysteries wherein it is fully plausible that a majority of the populace is completely unaware of what lurks around every corner, and where the herculean effort it takes to keep them there carries its own unsung nobility. Sometimes those of us who are not intrinsically familiar with British culture find ourselves flailing a bit to understand exactly what is being described, but there truly is no need for an absolute understanding – the tone set more than adequately, often deftly moves the story forward.
And the characters that author Charlie Fletcher has assembled are impressive. Of the Hand, I found Cook and Hodge to be particularly engaging, both of them so much more than typical team members. Cook is a formidable combination of fearsome prowess with her assembled (and prominently displayed) weaponry but also evokes the endearing image of a clucking manor house cook when it comes to mince pies and crumbly cheese, with her stocky girth ensconced in straining white pinafore and her frizzled grey hair caught up in the starched white mop-cap. (Perhaps the black eye patch and deeply scarred cheek helps to belie a more benevolent attitude.) Hodge is a dogged, taciturn, driven yet patient man who cares deeply about the people of London; once he is on the trail of a malevolent force he is just as dogged as his canine companion, and shattered yet even more resolute when he cannot move fast enough to keep disaster at bay. His interaction with his mutt, Jed, and the ancient raven that keeps an unnoticed eye from high above the city, is a gift that he holds as sacred.
Additionally, secondary characters delight without outshining: Amos, a mute “son” of the Templebanes who obeys unquestioningly, but also unquestioningly takes advantage of his freedom when he finds himself abandoned outside of their influence; Charlie Pyefinch, the disarming charmer son of a band of traveling players in whose company Lucy unexpectedly finds herself; Georgiana Eagle, the dazzlingly beautiful, egotistical daughter of a washed up conjurer who styles himself as the Great Wizard of the South, who alternately treats Lucy as friend or foe, depending on what best furthers her own fortunes.
The Oversight is definitely the first of a series. While there is a sense of coalescence at the end of the novel, most of the storylines remain unresolved. This break feels right, though, as if to give the reader a breath between episodes, much like with Frodo’s relentless march towards Mordor. Hopefully, though, the next volume will not be long in coming – not because time will cause the reader will lose interest, but because the storyline and characters and perceived world is engaging enough to leave us continually wondering what will come next. For in this dark and brooding but wholly involving series, we can’t help but understand that – just like the London evoked in the pages of The Oversight – there is so much more than what meets the eye. And that’s definitely something to look forward to.