Monday 12 May 2014

Book Review | The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher

Once the Oversight, the secret society that polices the lines between the mundane and the magic, counted hundreds of brave souls among its members. Now their number can be tallied on a single hand.

When a drunkard brings a screaming girl to the Oversight's London headquarters, it seems their hopes for a new recruit will be fulfilled—but the girl is a trap, her appearance a puzzle the five remaining guardians must solve or lose each other, and their society, for good.

As the borders between the natural and the supernatural begin to break down, brutal murders erupt across the city, the Oversight are torn viciously apart, and their enemies close in for the final blow.

This dark Dickensian fantasy spins a tale of witch-hunters, magicians, mirror-walkers and the unlikeliest of heroes drawn from the depths of British folklore. Meet the Oversight, and remember: when they fall, so do we all.


Charlie Fletcher, author of the Stoneheart trilogy for children, gives Suzanna Clarke a run for her money in The Oversight, a canny urban fantasy about a secret society sworn to protect the people from supranatural shenanigans.
"We were founded long ago," Sara said, "when the world was less crowded and people liked to fill up the space with four or five long words where one simple one would do: we are the Free Company for the Regulation and Oversight of Recondite Exigency and Supranatural Lore." (p.42)
That's magic to you and me—which is to say "strange, hidden things that happen without a normal explanation" (p.42)—and the very reasonable rules governing its usage; rules the Oversight exists to enforce... or has done, historically. These days, though, they can hardly keep their own house in order, so what hope do they have of overcoming a conspiracy of wicked witchfinders?

Once upon a time, there were many Hands in many lands, with five fingers each and an abundance of extra digits insisting on enlisting—the better to defend against those who would use their supranatural skills for ill. Then the Disaster happened; the Oversight was betrayed by its own, and you might measure the cost of its lax attitude in lives, given that the Great Fire of London was the result.

Fast forward to the year eighteen something or other. The society has been dramatically diminished in the centuries since the Disaster. No one trusts the Oversight any more, thus there's just the one Hand left standing, led—insofar as any Hand can be—by Sara Falk, a Glint who sees herself reflected in the serving girl who, at the outset of Fletcher's text, is deposited on the doorstep of the house the last Hand shares on Wellclose Square.

You must be wondering what a Glint is. Well, here's how Sara puts it to Lucy:
"When you touch something and the world around you jumps, and you see a vision that's so real it's not a vision but the thing itself? That's glinting." 
Lucy gaped at her, as if to ask how could she know this private thing. 
"Things that happen, important things, terrible things, they leave an imprint in the stones around them, as if they are leaving a record of the event. A Glint is someone with the gift to be able to read what is recorded." 
"It does not feel like a gift. It feels like a curse. It feels like a dream but I am awake. And then I feel sick," said Lucy, her voice beginning to accelerate with remembered panic. (p.61)
Lucy isn't quite the innocent she seems—though she isn't one of the bad guys either. Not exactly. But The Oversight's antagonists—namely the Templebane twins, Issachar and Zebulon, and their small army of orphans—have turned her into a terrible trap. A bomb of sorts. And when the bomb goes off, there's no question it'll devastate everything, and indeed everyone, who happens to be in the blast radius.

Sara isn't alone, of course, and if she can't see through Lucy, maybe one of the others fingers will. Perhaps that task will fall to Jack Sharp, a magical mongrel of a man who's sworn an oath to protect and serve Sara and secondarily the society. Or it could be Cook, a matronly mother-figure known for more than her excellent Eccles cakes. Maybe the Smith—an ageless supervisor of sorts who fashions supranatural contraptions for the Oversight—is set to save the day, and failing that, there's always Hodge and his dear dog.

The only sure thing is that someone will stop this tragic thing before it begins. After all, the Oversight's remaining members are "charged with anticipating the inconceivable." (p.15) But something is coming that even the Hand can't imagine: a darkness that will to destroy them if they don't shine a light on it shortly. And when they fall, so do we all...

As an introduction to the trilogy it begins, not to mention a narrative in its own standing, The Oversight is—and let's be clear here—something very special. It's perfectly pitched—immensely accessible, I expect—bolstered by a great sense of pace, with breaks and stake-raising in all the right places, and Fletcher, to his credit, shows so much more than he tells.

There's a little of that as well, yes—some amount of worldbuilding must be done—but the author handles it smartly, attending when necessary to larger matters without ignoring the little things. Take this terrific description of Cook's kitchen:
Wherever the eye looked, it found a bewildering variety of thing in which the unfamiliar comfortably outnumbered the familiar: apothecary jars with ancient gilt lettering on them fought for shelf space with irregular ziggurats of spice tins while below them on a groaning dresser bucket-shaped stone crocks sprouted explosions of spoons, spatulas and porridge-spirtles like exotic wooden flower arrangements. Lowly potato sacks slumped next to metal-trimmed tea chests which in turn supported a regiment of black japanned canisters emblazoned with yellowing paper squares stamped with impressive red Siamese chop marks that made them look more like battle pennants than labels. (p.30)
This contrast is crucial to The Oversight's success. The way in which Fletcher incorporates the strange in amongst the mundane, seeding the world we know with things we don't, serves to draw readers in immediately, then dazzle us with an abundance of depth and discovery. You'll notice, not unrelatedly, that his prose has a certain poise—an elegance, even, that made me savour the story's slower moments. Evidently, Fletcher also has a knack for narrative; the going, on the whole, is never less than gripping.

Alas, there's a lack of character, or rather such a riot of roles that though their interactions with one another are dynamic enough, they aren't especially well developed individually. The supporting folks, in fact, frequently feel more fully fledged than the major players—leaving aside Lucy, who does grow over the novel's course, and Cook, easily my favourite of the five fingers.

That's the only issue I had with Fletcher's first novel for adults, though: the fact that he's holding back as regards the characters at the heart of his narrative. The Oversight is excellent otherwise, with sections that reminded me nicely of The Night Circus, some decidedly Dickensian developments, and bits reminiscent of the best of Jim Butcher, too. That said, it's its own thing, and oh so moreish a morsel. I'd read a prequel this evening, a sequel as soon as. It's just such fun, and wonderfully well done.


The Oversight
by Charlie Fletcher

UK & US Publication: May 2014, Orbit

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