I often find myself thinking that a book would be better if the main character was a woman. Even in books with a female narrator, I end up lamenting the fact that our heroine doesn’t seem to have any girlfriends. So yes, a retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray focused around three women is exactly my cup of tea.
Creatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer is just that book. It features Dorina Gray, her elder sister Evadne, and Lady Henrietta Wotton…. Oh, and demons.
Dorina is a teenager living in the country, who wants nothing more than to be an art critic. She’s looking forward to spending the summer in London, visiting her uncle Basil and profiling him as her foray into art writing. She dreams of visiting the galleries and museums of the city, and hobnobbing with the artistic elite.
Evadne has little to no interest in visiting London. Her two main goals in life are improving her fencing form, and marrying the love of her life. But when she’s thrown over for another woman, and when she catches her sister in a compromising position with another young woman, she finds herself serving as Dorina’s chaperone for the London trip.
As for Lady Wotton, whose friends call her Henry or even Harry, she’s an aesthete who also happens to be a diabolist. A friend of Basil’s, and twin to Basil’s late lover Oliver, she begins to show the girls around her city, and immediately catches Dorina’s eye.
As is appropriate for a book that borrows heavily from Wilde, you may notice that most of these characters are queer. And while Evadne is straight, she seems less bothered by her sister’s attraction to young women and more bothered by the fact that she’s indiscreet about it.
Whew. With me so far?
Much like The Picture of Dorian Gray, this is a bit of a slow, meandering story. I have to admit that I’ve only read Wilde’s story once, and that was probably about 8 or 9 years ago, so the details have fled my mind. But I recall it being well, a bit boring.
Creatures of Will and Temper isn’t really boring, it’s just very character-driven for the first half. We get some action and danger later on, but the early part is focused on establishing the characters and their conflicts with each other, and giving us a bit of London scenery and culture.
One area where this book succeeds is in its depiction of the relationship between Dorina and Evadne. I feel like it’s rare to find a fantasy book that realistically depicts sibling relationships. When the characters aren’t orphans or only children, they have either a strongly antagonistic relationship, or get along perfectly.
Of course, the reality of having a sibling is that you swing between these extremes, sometimes even within a single day, but most of the time you exist somewhere in the middle, loving your sibling(s), but wishing they wouldn’t do whatever it is that annoys you.
In the case of Dorina and Evadne, they’re separated by eleven years and very different interests. Dorina is social and artistic and the darling of her parents. Evadne is serious, almost dour, focused on her fencing, and somewhat resentful of her younger sister. Neither really understands the other, they antagonize each other on accident and on purpose, but deep down inside they love each other.
And so, a lot of this book is about their relationship and how it develops. Oh sure, there’s the potential romance between Dorina and Henry that provides a bit of tension (especially since Henry is much older), and even Evadne has a couple of potential suitors… But the real heart of this book is how Dorina and Evadne struggle to relate to each other, and remain true to themselves while also finding a way to respect their differences.
But also, demons.
The demon mythology is an interesting element to this story that takes a while to develop. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from a book about demons, and we learn early on that Henry (and her friends) are bound to a demon that heightens their five senses and deepens their appreciation of the finer things in life.
Demons as presented here don’t seem like minions of Satan, but rather like some sort of otherworldly spirit. Like humans, some seem good and others incredibly evil. They give different gifts to the humans that traffic with them. And most of society doesn’t believe they actually exist.
Later in the book, an antagonistic demon becomes an issue, but to relate how would be to give significant spoilers. Suffice it to say that the second half of the book does introduce more outside forces to challenge the characters, which also forces them to work out their relationship issues.
This was a strange book, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked it at first, but it definitely rewards readers who are willing to be patient with its slow start.
Pros: LGBTQ representation, female friendships and sisterhood, fencing!
Cons: Slow start, cast is not ethnically diverse.
Conclusion: Worth taking the time to enjoy. May be more enjoyable for readers with more familiarity with Oscar Wilde.
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