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Miss Celeste Temple suddenly receives a brief letter from her fiancé, Roger, calling off their engagement for no apparent reason. She is not upset, but wants to find Roger to have him explain his reasons for his actions. One evening, as Celeste secretly follows Roger, she finds herself outside of London at a huge mansion which is hosting a masked ball. Celeste manages to infiltrate the ball where strange and possibly illegal things are happening.
She barely escapes with her life, killing two men in the process, and on the train on the way home, notices a distinctive looking gentleman in a red coat.
Unbeknownst to Celeste, he is Cardinal Chang. Hired to kill a man, he too was at the masked ball but was unable to earn his fee because someone beat him to his target. Unwilling to take the purse for someone else's work, Chang sets out to find the murderer and identify their motives.
Meanwhile Captain-Surgeon Svenson, a foreigner from the German principality of Macklenberg, is searching for Prince Karl-Horst. He's been acting strangely recently and has disappeared from his room under mysterious circumstances.
Somewhat fortuitously, the three happen to meet at Celeste's hotel and immediately realise that not only can they assist each other, but that there's more to their own quests than initially meets the eye. They join forces as it appears that they all seek answers from the same people, but they are also being pursued by these same people. The only way the three of them can stop running is to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Halfway through the first page, one thought crossed my mind.
"Bloody hell! Surely there was no way the first few sentences were that unreadable?"
I went back for another go. It took quite a few attempts before those initial sentences were accepted by my feeble brain. I found them to be long, complicated and extremely over-descriptive. If I was being honest, I wasn't too hopeful about the rest of the book.
Thankfully, the opening few paragraphs are not indicative of the rest of the book and although wordy, not awkwardly so. Once over the minor hiccup of the first few paragraphs, the tale unfolds splendidly. The story is a little slow to get going though the initial pace is not off-putting. Dahlquist doesn't throw the plot in your face and little bits and pieces are dribbled out, tempting you to read on. What are these mysterious glass books? What changes undergo those who dare read them? Why do people behave differently afterwards? Is he referring to Victorian London or is this some kind of parallel world? The beauty of it is that you won't get all the answers to the many questions that are raised throughout the book. You'll have to fill in some of the gaps yourself, but I thought that this added to my own enjoyment in this case.
The three protagonists are brought together as they join forces, their stories interweave extremely well. Later, as the trio become separated, their paths do overlap and several scenes are repeated from each of the heroes' point of view, which I thought was done tremendously well. Every now and again though, I came across the odd long, over-descriptive sentence that required repeated scanning before I was happy enough in my understanding to continue. There aren't many of these to be found, but they are noticeable.
The characters are excellent. The main trio complement each other very well having only the mystery and their own determination as common traits. The villains, for the most part, are not two dimensional (though there are a lot of them which could be confusing) and some, such as the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza are vividly realised in a Cruella de Ville way that make you enjoy their presence even as you know they're up to no good.
If I have one criticism of the book, it's that I thought the climactic events kind of stumbled along as the cabal responsible for the glass books try to complete their plans with our heroes in pursuit. It's not that the ending is unsatisfactory, just that I found the pacing to be a little odd. In fact, it's the pacing that could potentially put more than a few people off as it is quite slow and even during the action sequences, doesn't rise beyond a brisk stroll. I thought that Stephen King was the master of taking a number of pages to describe a character involved in a mundane act such as eating dinner, but Dahlquist gives him a run for his money.
Ultimately, the pacing and over-descriptive nature didn't bother me too much. I really enjoyed the ambiguity about whether this was 'real' Victorian England or not (though the glass books suggested otherwise) and I found the entire experience to be extremely original and quite unlike anything I've read before.