Catherine Webb

The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle, by Catherine Webb: Pei Yi and I had a book swap, where I sent her Ted Chiang’s short story anthology, and she sent me this book by Catherine Webb. Lucky for me because as far as I can tell, the Horatio Lyle books aren’t published in the U.S. yet. Anyway, the setup vaguely reminded me of Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician, insofar as you had an eccentric protagonist with unusual talents who solves crime, accompanied by a former pickpocket. Of course, Horatio Lyle is a man of science, not a magician, and moreover isn’t a member of the upper crust the way Richard Merrill is; Tess is far more unabashedly mischievous and has a rather dubious moral compass compared to Kim; and Webb sets her book firmly in the Victorian era while I think Mairelon the Magician is supposed to be Regency. (You can usually tell the difference by the level of technology in the setting, if the author has done their research.) Webb is apparently one of those writing prodigies who got published for the first time when she was fourteen. She’s already written several books, but I have to admit that her prose is still rather uneven, and I think she would benefit from a stricter editor. But there are definitely flashes of brilliance: her descriptions of the city are especially compelling, and she creates unique, memorable characters, with distinct voices and habits. I thought the Tseiqin dialogues were painfully stilted (I think she was going for a Tolkienesque effect but failed), and I don’t know why she was experimenting with switching from past to present tense because it made her prose sound amateurish. But she does know how to tell a story, and I think her writing is likely to improve if it hasn’t already.

Most of all, you can really tell she’s British; the book conveys an English atmosphere that’s more convincing than the most well-researched books. Of course I’m not an expert in what’s authentically “English” or not; my impressions are only due to certain similarities to other books by British writers. A convincing sense of place as well as clear class distinctions that American writers can only really pretend to understand.

I wasn’t too absorbed by the mystery of the missing Fuyun Plate, but I did love her characters, especially Horatio Lyle, the amateur scientist and sleuth. It’s such a whimsical idea, and I hope to find the sequel so I can see where she goes with it.