Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Dark Is Rising....: The Mesmerist by Ronald L. Smith

I am the vessel, you see, through which the dead loved one will speak. Actually, it is all a sham.

Since the tragic death of her father, Jessamine Grace and her mother have eked out a life of genteel poverty, conducting faux seances to unite grieving townspeople with their dead, with Jess herself faking a trance as well as the messages on the spirit board she carries into a cabinet.

But this time the message, a verse from an old nursery song, seems both inane and yet sinister.

"Ring around the rosy, a pocketful of posies--
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down."

And below, written in a spidery scrawl, one single letter...


With little explanation, Jessamine's mother hastily whisks her away to fog-shrouded London, to the house of a wealthy but strange man who calls himself Balthazar and who explains that an evil force led by the mythical Mephistopheles, is rising, beginning with the "rosy plague" which is killing the poor of the city, and that Jess has shown herself as a mesmerist, one endowed with powers to read minds and foresee the future.

"She is coming into her power," says Balthazar.

"What power, Mother?" I ask. I am completely flabbergasted.

Her face is ashen. "There is something I must tell you,... Your father had an ability, the same one you now seem to possess. Jess, your father and I once belonged to an order."

Jessamine's mother quickly leaves her with Balthazar, who takes her on a puzzling carriage ride through the foggy city to a secret, rather shabby house, in the London slums to meet with two other children just removed from an orphanage, Gabriel and Emily, who themselves have unusual but dubiously useful powers for the mission of fighting metaphysical evil; Gabriel sings and plays a harp, and Emily can produce light and heat at will. Also in the house is a servant girl, Darby, whom Emily whispers is a sometime werewolf.

It is all very hard to accept for Jess, whose simple life is suddenly transformed to lessons in fighting with a lash and other magical tools. But when Jess's spirit board allows her to see her own mother's murder, she swears her allegiance to the faerie Balthazar and his mission and becomes a member, like her parents, in the Order of the League of Ravens.

And her first trial comes swiftly, in a dark, deep mine, in which the three alone must fight Mephisto's alter ego Malachai Grimstead and his legions of the undead, ghouls and bitter spirits.

And then the words I have heard inside my head for so long are truly spoken aloud.

"Come to me, darkling, a child born with a black soul. Death is drawn to you.

Stand by my side, darkling, and I will show you how to walk beyond death."

Author Ronald K, Smith's forthcoming magical thriller, The Mesmerist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Clarion, 2017), makes good use of the drear, foggy, and maleficent Victorian scene to tell a fast-moving, yet allegorical tale, in a setting where a Manichean cosmogony of the forces of evil against good are recapitulated, with the aid of Gabriel, whom we might suspect is the angel Gabriel, and Emily the spirit of Light, help the heroine confront her own personal darkness and evil itself. Even the poor housemaid Darby is herself a symbol of the struggle between good and evil within humans, a theme which savvy veterans of the Harry Potter series will certainly recognize as familiar.

With a vastly different setting but a premise similar to his highly-reviewed Hoodoo (see review here), Smith skillfully builds upon those archetypal tropes--the brink-of-adolescence hero with dead or lost parents, the sudden interjection of hidden metaphysical powers, the magical mentor who offers counsel and training but sends the protagonist forth on his or her own mission, with the help of powerful young friends, to the ultimate trial with the minion of evil who tempts with offers the powers of the dark side--all are here as they were from this genre's deep roots in Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, and Susan Cooper, whose The Dark Is Rising series provides the pivotal plot point for this suspenseful fantasy novel.

Lovers of those dark-side English fantasy classics will be drawn to The Mesmerist, which will also surely please recent fans of Catherine Jinks' How to Catch a Bogle and sequels, (also Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Robert Beatty's currently best-selling Serafina and the Black Cloak and Serafina and the Twisted Staff (Serafina Book 2). (Hyperion).

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