As a longtime working journalist, I’ve spent years reading a steady diet of history, politics, military affairs, biography, current events, travel, and memoir.
My escape is historical fiction. In between deadlines, engaging in the fantasy of living in other times and places is a true tonic. I keep a close eye on a select coterie of authors: Amor Towles, Ken Follett, Maggie O’Farrell, Bernard Cornwall, Kristin Hannah, and Hilary Mantel, among others. One author high on my watch list happens to live in San Antonio: David Liss.
The Edgar Award winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper, The Day of Atonement, The Coffee Trader, and The Spectacle of Corruption, among others, deserves his place on anyone’s list of great writers of historical fiction.
Our friendship, or association, if I can borrow a more appropriate Victorian term, happens to be a welcome geographical coincidence. I will engage Liss in a virtual conversation, Monday at 6 pm, presented by San Antonio’s newest independent book store, Nowhere Bookshop.
This Zoom event, originally scheduled for Friday, Sept. 10, will now occur Monday, Sept. 13. Click here for details.
Liss will be talking about his intriguing new novel, The Peculiarities, which his publisher, Tachyon Publications, describes as “alternate history.” That phrase may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, one intended to trip up Liss’ loyal audience. Tachyon specializes in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as well as young adult literature. The Peculiarities, it turns out, is truly a flight of fancy and imagination.
Liss has ventured far beyond traditional historical fiction over the course of his prolific writing life. He’s published 14 books and counting, including a fantastical sharp turn into the world of comic book superheroes. He also has authored young adult novels. Liss is unbound by convention.
The book is difficult to describe without tripping into spoiler alerts, but longtime Liss readers will turn the first few pages and once again find themselves in the the distinct times and vocabulary of Victorian London. Does anyone capture it better than Liss? Well, yes, but Dickens is long gone. My wife, Monika, who read the book alongside me, has taken to calling our bathroom “the necessary.”
Thomas Thresher is forced by his father’s untimely death to set aside his studies at Cambridge to join the family bank as a junior clerk. A fate fair enough. Thomas’ older brother Walter, however, is a bullying bank boss, not so surprising in this or any other family-controlled enterprise. But matter turns strange when Thomas notices leaves growing on his appendages.
Yes, leaves. Tree leaves. This is a manifestation, we learn, of the strange and inexplicable “peculiarities” plaguing London, and they only grow in dimension as zoomorphism descends upon the city. The Peculiarities are widely denied, officially, but nonetheless envelope the city in a strange, otherwordly fog.
Thomas may be little more than a resentful clerk beholden to his older brother, but he’s smart enough to witness the corruption and incompetence of Walter, even as his older brother corners him into an unwanted marriage of convenience that ends up serving to help Thomas expose fraud, even as he steadily succumbs to supernatural forces.
From there, readers can discover for themselves where Liss takes his characters and their peculiarities. The story is both a revealing whodunit, and a surreal journey into the supernatural. Science fiction readers might find it a comfortable one. I was in new territory on almost every page.
Purists looking for a work of historical fiction along the lines of Liss’ previous acclaimed novels might abandon him on this journey as he veers into new, unexplored territory. I enjoyed being led far away from my own presumptions into a story that surprised and entertained me at almost every turn. Liss’ sense of humor, as expressed in the voices of his various characters, is wickedly on the mark.I might not have read this remarkable novel if it didn’t have David Liss’ name on the cover. I’m so glad I did.
What pushed Liss in this new, fantastical direction? Good question. That’s why journalists like me are so eager to engage writers like Liss. I’ll be sure to ask him, and to ask him what’s next. You should join us, Monday at 6 pm.