Candle Man: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance (Book 1)
Set in the equivalent of Victorian England, two secret societies battle for supremacy both in London and in the myriad of tunnels that lies beneath: the Society of Good Works, which seeks to bend all else to their will through excessive kindness, aptly started by the Philanthropist and consisting primarily of the idle rich and members of the aristocracy; and the Society of Unrelenting Vigilance, which is formed by the victims of the Society of Good Works, seeking to forestall the latter’s evil plans.
In the centre of this battle was an oblivious, young lad, Theo, who has spent a good part of his life in complete isolation, ostensibly because of a life-threatening health condition. He has been told that he must wear special gloves at all times and that he requires very painful treatments every day or he will die. This subliminal messaging created Theo’s sense of identity and for the longest time, he thought of himself as nothing more than a helpless invalid. Still, Theo longs to learn about the outside world and becomes increasingly desperate to meet people other than his guardian Dr. Saint, his butler Mr Nicely and his deaf maid Clarice, but he gets more than what he has wished for when he discovers that his disease is in fact a mysterious power to melt people into puddles of goo in a chance confrontation with two burglars. Confused by this sudden discovery and newly suspicious of his guardian’s intentions in imprisoning him, Theo soon escapes under the assistance of a garghoul (a living gargoyle) and the Society of Unrelenting Vigilance. In the ensuing clashes between the two societies, Theo learns that Dr. Saint is the head of the Society of Good Works seeking to nullify the threat of Theo’s heritage to the society’s plans. Even as he struggles to stay one step ahead of Dr Saint and his cronies with the help of the SUV, Theo soon finds himself also battling a horde of creatures thought to be extinct led by an ancient nemesis, the Dodo. The plot thickening at every twist and turn, this action-packed story with a steampunk edge is an easy and quick read for the young readers it is intended for and the overgrown kids alike.
I came across a review of this book in one of my LJ communities (I can’t recall which one – if you had reviewed the book recently, thank you; you were the reason why I went to pick up the book) and was immediately intrigued. I have a very soft spot for Victorian steam-punk, even before I know there was such a genre to begin with, and particularly those written by British writers. (I am an Anglophile, I readily confess.)
Let me say it up front, this book was worth every pretty penny I paid for the hardcover.
YA speculative fiction has suffered of late from the effects of mass commercialism and the gradual death of new untried ideas that it has become incredibly difficult to find a good plot that does not involve wizards, vampires, werewolves, high school romance and dragons and new unfamiliar characters with personalities that are custom made specifically for them. The Candle Man broke through this trap of familiarity. The protagonist is different: brought up in a stern environment specially designed to brainwash him into a useless and malleable tool, his world view is warped. In one instance, he tells another character very solemnly that he considers the pursuit of happiness a social sin – “the pursuit of happiness makes people selfish... [i]t causes friction and society and leads to a morbid fear of death” – in such a matter-of-fact tone that the reader is brought to sympathise with the young man’s plight. The fantastical creatures are also refreshing after a flood of werewolves, vampires, goblins and elves: Dakin created an army of extinct animals controlled by a man who looked like a Dodo (how’s that for surreal), gargoyles brought to life and creatures made out of smog.
Dakin also has a flair for drawing the reader into his created world with his rich descriptions of a smog-ridden, both literally and metaphorically, London and the two warring secret societies. What I find even more striking is his ability to navigate moral ambiguity in a YA book. The ironic treatment, the subversion rather, of philanthropy and the caricature of the idle rich’s penchant to take up charitable causes lends the tale of the ignorant superhero on the cusp of discovering the full extent of his powers a more sophisticated and complex layer – which I appreciated greatly probably because I share the same bias, albeit not to the extent portrayed in the story, that philanthropy is often self-serving and inherently selfish. (I am a cynical Hobbes-leaning soul.)
If I had any criticism for this book, it is probably that the book is too much of a page-turner. Dakin has written for television and in some aspects it shows: each action scene moves on to the next relentlessly and every turn, just as you think the writer has to slow down a little and let the characters/readers take a breath, the plot picks up yet again. The fast moving and very well-paced plot comes at the expense of characterisation. There is hardly any time for a reader to be acquainted with any of the other characters to a point that their entrance/exit points always seem very abrupt. While I am able to empathise with Theo, I find myself feeling nothing for the other characters, which makes some developments a lot less impactful emotionally than they otherwise would have. At the same time, (a much smaller point) Dakin should really not try to be philosophical. When he tries through the voice of Tristus in the book, I cringed for a good two pages.
A good departure from the usual fare on the main shelves these days. Great read. Like titles that folks interested in this might like to try may be: Philip Reeves’ Larklight (he has better sense of humour and great characterisation, but less intricate plot); and for less fantasy: Catherine Webb’s Horation Lyle – same steampunk effect, good plotting; and Eleanor Updale’s Montmorency, a series that I so adore I should dedicate an entire post just to it.
4/5 because I already put a note to buy Society of Dread the moment it is out.