The Peculiarities: David Liss

Published by Tachyon Publications

London, the turn of the 20th century. A pervasive fog covers the city, and strange things are happening, known as “the Peculiarities”. Women are giving birth to litters of rabbits, people are transforming into trees and animals, and vicious, not-quite-human Elegants are prowling the streets.

The Peculiarities also touch Thomas Thresher, a young man from a banking family. Thomas has been discovering that leaves are growing on his body. He can pick them off easily, leaving only small blemishes, “the size of pinpricks—whiter and slightly firmer than the surrounding skin”. Does their regular appearance mean he is undergoing a metamorphosis?

Thomas had assumed that he would live as a gentleman of leisure. But his father’s will stipulated that Thomas would work in the family bank and not receive an inheritance until he had proved himself an asset to the bank. Thomas begins as a junior clerk and believes he will make his way up through the ranks. However, his brother Walter, who now runs the bank, is furious at having Thomas on board. He clearly has no intention of promoting him and sets him menial tasks instead.

Bored, Thomas decides to make himself useful by drawing on his talent for mathematics to study the bank’s accounts. What he finds is worrying. Walter has been buying up debts and making bad decisions, and the bank is losing money as a result. Thomas is curious, and starts to look into the debtors’ backgrounds to see if anything links them.

Walter’s buying up of debts is not the only thing that is puzzling Thomas. Walter is pushing Thomas to marry Esther Feldstein, a Jewish woman. There was prejudice against Jews at the time—although they could practice their religion, they were not normally accepted into polite society as equals. Walter was no different from other Englishmen in his prejudices: so why was it so important to him that Thomas and Esther marry?

Esther—intelligent and fairly unflappable—and Thomas join forces to uncover the mystery surrounding the bank and the Peculiarities. As Thomas tracks down the debtors on the bank’s list, he uncovers a vast conspiracy tied up with the Peculiarities that are plaguing London. There are secret societies, magic, and devilry afoot. His explorations lead him to Aleister Crowley and the Order of the Golden Dawn.[1] With Crowley’s and Esther’s help, Thomas tries to set things right and undo the damage.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy. David Liss has a way of creating atmosphere and a sense of menace. When Thomas goes to London’s East End to track down one of the debtors, he runs into the Elegants.

“Ahead of him he sees a couple walking arm in arm, clearly from the better side of the street. But no, there is something odd about them, with their clothes from a decade or two past. … As he passes the couple, Thomas touches his hat, and the gentleman turns to him. His face is gaunt, sunken-eyed, leathery, like something found beneath a mummy’s wrapping. His nose is but two slits, his mouth a lipless grin.

“Thomas staggers back, and the couple vanishes into the mist.”

Liss has spoken of his fascination with real historical magic practiced by people who thought it could influence their world, and particularly with the Order of the Golden Dawn. By bringing in real people—the poet W.B. Yeats and the author Arthur Conan Doyle, both of whom were actually a part of the Golden Dawn—Liss brings in a touch of history into this book about magic.

Buy from UK / USA

Read the Talking About Books interview with David Liss.

[1] Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a British occultist who was part of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to the study and practice of the occult.

One thought on “The Peculiarities: David Liss

  1. Pingback: Travelling Back in Time: An Interview with David Liss – Talking About Books

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