starlady: (basket of secrets)
Walker, Wendy. The Secret Service. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Classics, 1992.

This is the kind of book that one hears about vaguely for years. I have the memory that Garth Nix actually mentioned it in a recs page on his website at one point, but I think I'm wrong, though it was definitely that general era, i.e. middle school, when I first saw it mentioned. I have also seen it in [personal profile] coffeeandink's classic post on Notes toward a definition of 'fantasy of manners', which I periodically dip back into. Last spring I happened to have the brilliant idea of seeing whether the Stanford library had it. They do and I got it, because Stanford students don't read. It's so obscure it has an entry on [tumblr.com profile] writersnoonereads, but Worldcat reveals that a number of university libraries have copies. I'm glad I didn't manage to track it down before now, as I am quite certain that I would not have been able to appreciate its pleasures in middle school.

The book is nominally about the desperate actions of a set of characters employed by the eponymous British Secret Service of the title, which on one level is a rather droll pun, because the chief espionage tactic of the Secret Service in this alternate Victorian England is transfiguring themselves into tableware. (Also flowers and statuary. If you like the decorative arts, this book is for you.) The novel follows a varied cast of characters: the Corporal and Mrs. Morgan, who recruit, train, and dispatch young Polly and Rutherford to the Continent to follow the positively Baroque plot of a troika of villains against the English royal family. Rutherford is a chauvinist ass overly enamored of his own manly capacity for decisive action. Polly is calm, collected, and secretly joints the Service out of a thwarted ambition to tread the boards.

Not fantasy of manners, but Mannerist fantasy )

I said when I first started reading the book that it reminded me a bit of Ted Chiang, which mostly comes from the fact that the first chapter is an excruciatingly long discussion on the alternate (Aristotelian) science that allows the Secret Service to take objective form. The pleasures of this book are not in its science but in its intoxicating prose, its dry wit, and its elaborate psychology. It's like what you would get if you crossed Ted Chiang with Susanna Clarke and an admixture of Stendhal, which believe me, is high praise. Though I can name similar authors, this book is nonetheless unique, and uniquely fascinating. If you can track down a copy, I highly recommend it.

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June 2017

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