I’ve been friendly with Walter Hunt for some years, so when he told me that his new novel Elements of Mind (Spence City) involved Victorian mesmerists, I knew to expect an atmospheric and meticulously researched fantasy full of period language and detail, probably one dovetailing with real history as seamlessly as anything by Tim Powers.
That is indeed what we get. In Victorian England, a society of mesmerists – in effect, sorcerers who can use gestures and the power of animal magnetism to compel humans and others – is aware of various categories of dangerous spirits. There are elementals of earth, air, fire and water; greater entities of a kind a Victorian Christian could only categorize as demons or perhaps djinn; and still greater, half-awake entities who might be old gods.
The mesmerists – and various unlikely allies – strive to keep these entities beyond the Glass Door, out of the human world. They cannot pass the Glass Door of themselves, but they can be summoned. And for the summoning there is always a price – which the evil or simply desperate may be all too willing to pay with their souls.
The head of the Committee of Mesmerists, William Davy, knows that some of these entities intend to shatter the Glass Door so that the spirits can erupt uncontrollably into the human world. To prevent this, he seeks a statuette older than history that enhances mesmeric powers. During the novel he travels all over Great Britain and eventually to India in search of it.
The only serious flaw in this book is that’s about all that happens. Walter is so fond of his scene-painting and historical lore (Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle are both significant characters) that he sometimes seems reluctant to let his plot develop or resolve. If I didn’t know from him that there is to be a sequel (something not hinted at in the packaging of the ARC he gave me) I might wonder what the actual point of the exercise was.
As it is, Walter is working on a narrative arc that cannot be encompassed in a single book. I have fair confidence that he’ll get somewhere interesting with it; this is, after all, the same man who wrote the action-filled but philosophically challenging Dark Wing space operas. In the meantime, this sepia-toned puzzlebox of a novel offers some quiet, sophisticated pleasures for the historically-literate reader and connoisseur of Victoriana. I mentioned Tim Powers earlier; though not as pyrotechnic as either, this work otherwise bears comparison with The Anubis Gates or The Stress of Her Regard pretty well.
Elements of Mind is perhaps best read with a search engine handy so you can look up character names and items of terminology, and appreciate the clever use Walter has made of his sources. If that prospect fails to appeal to you, you are probably not Walter’s target reader. But if it does, you’ll appreciate reading something more intelligent than the reams of formula fantasy out there, and this is it.