In the great Victorian tradition, a female author is obliged to disguise her name through initials so people might think she’s a man. For some reason this trope has become tied to the romance or “fluffy” genre books, but in this first offering in a long paranormal series, C.J. Archer has defied expectations with an offering that calls back to gothic roots, while fulfilling the romantic and action musts for the genre. Think Anne Rice, Laurel K Hamilton, or Gail Carriger, bound in a delicious absinthe-green cover. A great pick for #ReadSelfPublished month.
We follow heroine Charlotte “Charlie” Holloway, a girl masquerading as a boy in the slums of London after her father threw her out of his house. Why? Oh, nothing, just because she raised her dear mumsy from the grave in front of her god-fearing pa. From there Charlie is embroiled in a conspiracy going to the highest levels of shadow government, because everybody wants the last necromancer. There’s a handsome Victorian Batman, also more rapists and rapist allegories than you can shake a can of mace at. The Last Necromancer is also the Last Girl in the Bar.
I’m going to buck tradition here, and get the bad bits out of the way first. Fortunately, there aren’t many.
First of all, TLN is a slow burn, which is odd for a book that isn’t categorically horror. There isn’t really a psychological creep factor, so we end up spending four chapters setting up the premise: Charlie doesn’t want to be seen as a girl, because to be a girl is to be victimized in Victorian (Edwardian? That was never clear but by technology it sounds Victorian) London. But that’s not particularly clear in the first chapter, because her disguise works and people still want to rape her as a boy. Strike One: took too long. In my opinion we could have gone straight to the hijinks in chapter two.
The other major complaint I have with the book is the borrowing. It’s not just tropes like the stoic warrior stud, the rich sexy widow or the pissant society toff, there are classic gothic characters ripped straight off the page. The author is fairly apologetic about it with a sweet note at the end. That was cute, like a little flower and a wink. One of the more attractive literary aspects of this time period are all the popular characters now in public domain, which works great for an indie author who has to be aware of the legal ramifications without the protection of a publisher. FORGIVEN!
The Last Necromancer belongs in a category of what I like to call guilty pleasure books- they’re easy to read, of a medium length, and full of genre tropes. They’re comforting and offer relatable characters, and you’re almost assured of a happy ending. Most of all they’re not supposed to challenge your belief systems, so I’m very happy that Archer managed to work quite a bit of feminism into the book’s second half. Like a real woman, the girl power of TLN is that she’s got back. (Sorry, had to be done)
And that’s the best part of TLN. Charlotte is reduced to masculinity by a powerful male, in this case, her father. She comes to terms with paternal figures, sexual intrigue and her own femininity, realizing the power of her natural form. Not only that, she realizes the power she can attain and the power that isn’t limited by her being a woman. This is just perfect set against the backdrop of Victorian values, the very archetype of gender roles. Ultimately it is her defiance of classic gender roles that furthers the plot. All those rapists we shook a truncheon at earlier? They’re put in for the sole reason of bringing Charlotte to her decision at the end. This is where it’s at, fellas, the good reasons women say no to us at the bar.
And that, also, is why TLN is a good read. Traditionally published books are stuck between literary fiction and genre fiction; nary shall the two mix. Few enough guilty pleasure books offer something substantial to chew on, and the Victorian time period is rife with material. I am hoping the rest of the series explores a similar theme. Four out of five flaming corsets!