London, 1901. After the death of Queen Victoria the city heaves with the uncanny and the eerie. Séances are held and the dead are called upon from darker realms.
Samuel Moncrieff, recovering from a recent tragedy of his own, meets Helena Walton-Cisneros, one of London’s most reputed mediums. But Helena is not what she seems and she’s enlisted by the elusive Lady Matthews to solve a twenty-year-old mystery: the disappearance of her three stepdaughters who vanished without a trace on the Norfolk Fens.
But the Fens are a liminal land, where folk tales and dark magic still linger. With locals that speak of devilmen and catatonic children found on the Broads, Helena finds the answer to the mystery leads back to where it started: Samuel Moncrieff.
The Golden Key is a wonderful debut novel by this author and I’m grateful to Titan books for providing me with copy for review, historical is a genre that I rarely get the opportunity to read and with the addition of some wonderful fantasy elements this book ticked a lot of boxes for me. The setting as the blurb explains, is in a Britain shortly after the loss of Queen Victoria, the seance scene has skyrocketed along with the naysayers, what is without doubt though, is a number of missing children in the Norfolk Fens which has led to a seemingly unsolvable mystery.
I found that out of all the major characters I found I connected with Helena the most and we do travel with her for the majority of the book. The time setting has the suffragette movement at the forefront and it was great to have both Helena and then Eliza carrying out typically male dominated roles for the time. It was the lengths that Helena went to in order to both pursue and preserve a career that she was clearly extraordinary at which weighed heavily for me, the self sabotage she had to undertake in order to not upset the delicate sensibilities of the men around her which probably rang true for many women of the time
This book is perfectly balanced with both it’s need to debunk the seance culture which rocked the time period and the idea that there is indeed true spiritualism. What comes between is an imaginative blurring of the edges which leaves you questioning, no matter which side of the argument you fall on, whether the other in fact has a point. As a great lover of fairies and fairy stories, I have always approached this kind of mythology with an open mind and that not every fairy will be of the Tinkerbell persuasion. This more trickster ideal is the level in which The Golden Key is pitched at, the darker side of fringe realms which cross over to our own more than we realise.
The story moves slowly and methodically as Helena collects and collates the evidence, the story cleverly punctuated with news clippings of the curtain being pulled back on the Seance culture, her journey bringing her to both the obvious conclusions and some that you, as a reader, have to work for with her. I have to admit that I didn’t realise there was a connection to an earlier children’s book called The Golden Key which appears to be the source for many of the revelations within this story. It’s certainly one for me to look into. As the investigation continues so does the sense of foreboding and even as the pieces start to fall into place, there are still more questions than answers. As a reader I don’t mind this kind of open ended style, and for a book that focuses on opening the characters eyes to alternate ideas, it felt right in the context. Where I did struggle was with the fact that the book felt somewhat flighty at times, I think this is down to incredibly long chapters that chop and change frequently with character focus and locations. This is of course reader preference but I felt the story would have felt more grounded and easier to keep track of if even there was a more frequent use of scene breaks or shorter chapters.
I found The Golden Key to be a thoughtful read that asks you to challenge your preconceptions about spiritualism and realism and I give this book 4*