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A Novel

Written by Lauren OwenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lauren Owen



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On Sale: June 17, 2014
Pages: 560 | ISBN: 978-0-679-64505-4
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

For fans of Anne Rice, The Historian, and The Night Circus, an astonishing debut, a novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures up all the magic and menace of Victorian London
 
1892: James Norbury, a shy would-be poet newly down from Oxford, finds lodging with a charming young aristocrat. Through this new friendship, he is introduced to the drawing-rooms of high society and finds love in an unexpected quarter. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace. Alarmed, his sister, Charlotte, sets out from their crumbling country estate determined to find him. In the sinister, labyrinthine London that greets her, she uncovers a hidden, supernatural city populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Doctor Knife.” But the answer to her brother’s disappearance ultimately lies within the doors of the exclusive, secretive Aegolius Club, whose predatory members include the most ambitious, and most bloodthirsty, men in England.
 
In her first novel, Lauren Owen has created a fantastical world that is both beguiling and terrifying. The Quick will establish her as one of fiction’s most dazzling talents.
 
Praise for The Quick

“A suspenseful, gloriously atmospheric first novel, and a feast of gothic storytelling that is impossible to resist.”—Kate Atkinson
 
“A good old-fashioned vampire novel . . . What fun.”The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
 
The Quick is that rare book that reviewers and readers live for: both plot- and character-driven, a stay-up-all-night reading romp. . . . This is elegant, witty, force-of-nature writing.”—The Dallas Morning News
 
“The book’s energy, its wide reach and rich detail make it a confident example of the ‘unputdownable’ novel.”—The Economist
 
“A seamless blend of Victorian London and rich imagination.”—Tana French, author of In the Woods
 
“A thrilling tale . . . This book will give you chills even on a hot day.”Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Stylishly sinister . . . will have you sleeping with the lights on.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“A sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre.”—Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall
 
“A big, sly bucketful of the most tremendous fun . . . [Owen] weaves what’s here with what’s beyond as easily as J. K. Rowling does.”Slate
 
“[An author of] prodigious gifts . . . Owen captures Dickens’s London with glee and produces a number of characters Dickens would be happy to call his own.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Excerpt

Chapter One

There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy. The room was papered in a pattern of winding branches, amongst which great green parent owls perched in identical courting couples. Beneath each pair, a trio of green owlets huddled, their sharp beaks slightly ajar. They sat between big, thistling green flowers with tiny white blossoms which made James think of mother-of-pearl buttons, the kind on Charlotte’s Sunday dress. When he was alone in the nursery, James thought he could hear the owls chatter together softly, like monkeys, scratching and scratching their claws against the endless green branches. But when Charlotte was there, they were quiet, because she had told them that if they did not behave, she would get her box of watercolours and paint out their eyes.

At night James would hear the real owls screech outside and imagine them gliding through the dark. Sometimes there was the high sudden cry of a fox. And sometimes there was a noise from the house itself, a whispering creaking sound, as if the walls were sighing.

Often he would slip out of bed and down the corridor to Charlotte’s room. Charlotte would always be sound asleep: face down on the pillow, though Mrs. Rowley, the housekeeper, said it was unnatural and would lead to Charlotte being smothered to death one of these days. James would slip under the blankets and lie down topsy-turvy, with his head at the bottom of the bed, his feet near the top. Charlotte would sometimes murmur and kick halfheartedly against him, then fall asleep again, and James would do the same, his feet pressed against her back until they grew warm. They would lie all night like that, snug as the pair of pistols that lived in the blue-lined case in Father’s study.

When morning came James liked to wake early, open Charlotte’s bedroom window and look down onto the grounds of Aiskew Hall, which went on for as far as he could see. There were wide lawns and gardens edged by paths and stately, lovely old trees—oaks and horse chestnuts and copper beeches and silver birches. Between the trees there were two grassy mounds. These were the icehouses, which now held gardening tools and other odd things.

At a distance, the gardens still had the illusion of being neat and well tended, as they had been before James and Charlotte were born. Long ago, in the prosperous days, there had been people to look after things: gardeners and undergardeners, two gamekeepers and a carpenter. A fire engine, too, drawn by horses. Now there was only Griswold, strange and grim-faced and sixty-three. There had been a young Griswold once—the gardener’s son, who had been expected to take over from his father and who instead went off to foreign parts and then died (fighting the Shantee, said Ann, the housemaid. James thought perhaps this was a sort of banshee).

After his son went away, Griswold had been left alone to wage a vain and bitter war against the gardens. He shot the rabbits but they came back, grazing the lawns at their leisure. The mighty rhodo­dendron bushes flourished unchecked, and in the orchard the trees turned wild and the apples were eaten by blackbirds.



At the end of the hall gardens, the ground gave way to a sudden drop that felt like the edge of the world. Below was a ditch full of nettles, which was called a ha-ha. Beyond that there were wide flat fields for miles, green and gold in the spring, red-brown earth in the winter. There were oak trees and black sheep grazing and the ruins of a small Grecian temple, where long ago the ladies of the hall would sit to enjoy their books and needlework. Part of the roof had given way, and the pillars looked slightly crooked. It was not safe to sit there any more.

Charlotte had heard Mrs. Rowley say that people in Aiskew village thought it was a scandal to leave the hall so neglected. Before now the hall people had always done their part in the village: there had been treats for the Sunday-school children; sometimes the hall ladies would take baskets to the villagers who were poor or ill. More than that, there was any amount of work at the hall: mouths to be fed, washing to be done, windows to be cleaned, horses to be stabled. It had been a fine place, back in the old days. Now it was mostly shut up. Everyone wondered why Charlotte and James’s father troubled himself to keep the house at all, since he did nothing with it.

Charlotte thought that if Mother were still alive, then Father would have lived with them, at least some of the time, when he could be spared from his business, and the people in the village would have been friendlier. As things were, nobody much cared for James and her. Even Mrs. Rowley seemed to prefer them to be elsewhere: outside in the gardens or at their lessons or in the nursery, anywhere as long as they were out of the way.

When Father had left Charlotte and James at Aiskew after Mother’s death, he had said that he would make all the proper arrangements. Then they did not hear from him for a long while. Eventually he wrote to tell Mrs. Rowley that he had engaged a governess. The letter went on to say that he would approach Mrs. Chickering, his aunt, who might be able to make a long visit to Aiskew, to help Mrs. Rowley set things in order and make the place comfortable again. Once all this was done, perhaps he could be spared from business long enough to come back to Yorkshire himself and see them.

At first they were all of them—Charlotte and James, Mrs. Rowley and Ann, and Mrs. Scholes, the cook—in the habit of speaking as if Mrs. Chickering might arrive any day. But months went by, and she did not appear. It was her health, Mrs. Rowley said, sounding rather scornful. Mrs. Chickering never seemed strong enough to travel. A year passed, then another.

Ann and Mrs. Scholes were the only servants at Aiskew—apart from Griswold, who scarcely counted. They were both up from York and spent a great deal of time huddled in the kitchen for warmth, complaining over the remoteness of the house, the dreariness of the mists, and the loneliness of their situation. Sometimes there was a governess for Charlotte and James—but these ladies never stayed for very long.

So Charlotte did her best: they would have to be brave, she told James, and she devised ordeals for them to perform—walking down one of the long corridors alone after dark, or keeping one’s head under the bathwater for a minute at a time. Or—this was worst of all—shutting oneself in the priest hole in the library.

The library was full of treasures. The cousin—the very distant cousin who had owned the hall before them—had bought books at a fearful rate, adding to an already extensive collection. There was no one to stop Charlotte and James from taking what they wanted, poring over whichever old, delicious-smelling volumes they chose.

It was a beautiful room, too: there was a red carpet and red-and-gold paper on the walls and a beautiful marble fireplace with a pattern of grapes carved all the way round.

The priest hole had been added to the house by the cousin. He had many romantic ideas and had lavished money on trifles. Much of the grounds and the farmland had been sold to pay the resulting debts, and the estate had been much reduced, and the cousin had died in Italy of grief or something else.

The cousin had thought that the priest hole might make the house seem older than it really was, though why he should have wanted this neither Charlotte nor James could have said. It was frightening inside—stuffy and smelling of wood and polish. Ann sometimes left dusters and brooms in there, and if you weren’t careful you could knock them over in the dark. The door to the priest hole was hidden, fitted cunningly behind one of the bookshelves. It opened with a secret spring concealed behind a dummy book—Fungi of the British Isles, Vol. II. The false spine was scruffy claret-coloured leather, faded from the touch of many hands. If you didn’t know which one it was, you might never find it. From inside the priest hole, there was no way of getting out again.

You passed the ordeal if you didn’t scream for help. When the door was shut, it was so close to your face that it felt difficult to breathe. There was no light. It felt as if everyone outside had gone away and there would be no one ever coming to let you out.

They did not do this ordeal often—only when the door’s fascination grew too much. It was the best ordeal of all and would make you the bravest, Charlotte said. And this was good, because if you did enough ordeals, you would be grown up.

...

One June morning, when Charlotte was nine and a half and James was five, she took a box of coloured chalks out to the terrace and set about teaching him his letters. This was necessary because Miss Prince, their latest governess, had gone home to Shropshire two weeks earlier without being able to make James properly acquainted with any letter other than S (with which, for reasons he was unable to explain, he had an odd fascination).

The terrace had large flagstones which would grow warm in the sun, so that in the hottest days of summer it was pleasant to walk over them barefoot. Charlotte took a piece of white chalk and drew a large A onto one of the stones. Then she moved a little way along, stooped again, and drew B.

“What’re you doing?” James asked.

Charlotte glanced up, brushing her hair out of her eyes with a chalky hand. It left a dusting of white at the top of her head, making her look as if she were wearing a powdered wig, like a lady of a hundred years ago.

“You have to know the alphabet,” she said.

“Why?” James asked, staring at A with vague mistrustful remembrance.

Charlotte looked up from F with a frown. “Because you have to. What would you do if you grew up and you couldn’t read? People would think you were ignorant.”

She said ignorant in a disagreeable way she had learned from Miss Prince—leaning on the ig, making it sound like a finger jab to the ribs.

James scowled. “I don’t care.”

“Well, Father probably thinks you can read already,” Charlotte said, and drew N—it came out bigger than she had intended, all pointed angles, making James think of a gate locked shut.

He watched her in silence and made no further argument. After a moment, he went over to where she was kneeling, the twenty-sixth flagstone, and inspected what she had drawn. It was an angry angular slash, a diagonal stroke, its elbows pointing both directions in a standoffish sort of way.

“What’s that?” James asked, pointing at it with his foot.

“It’s Z,” said Charlotte.

“It looks like half an hourglass.”

“Well, it isn’t.” Charlotte stood up and brushed the dust from her hands. “Now go and stand by the fountain.”

James did as he was told. The fountain was a bone-dry stone bowl at the middle of the terrace, supported by three naked cherubs with mossy legs and expressions of baffled malignity. One of them was missing his nose, and this misfortune, which ought to have made James feel sorry for him, only made him the most hateful of the three.

Charlotte had climbed onto the low wall of the terrace and was pacing up and down. “When I call the letter, you have to go and stand on it.”
Lauren Owen

About Lauren Owen

Lauren Owen - The Quick
LAUREN OWEN studied English Literature at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, before completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she received the 2009 Curtis Brown prize for the best fiction dissertation. The Quick is her first novel. She lives in northern England.
Praise

Praise

“A suspenseful, gloriously atmospheric first novel, and a feast of gothic storytelling that is impossible to resist.”—Kate Atkinson, bestselling author of Life After Life and Case Histories
 
“Reading the blurbs on the dust jacket of Lauren Owen’s first novel—from such luminaries as Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, and Tana French—readers might think they’re about to embark on a high-handed version of the Gothic novel, full of metafictions and literary allusions. These do appear, along with some beautiful language, but by Page 100, when the first neck is about to be bitten, The Quick drops its cloak and becomes a good old-fashioned vampire novel. . . . [It’s full of] wonderful inventions, while still providing the torn collars and hungry looks the genre demands. . . . What fun.”The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
 
The Quick is that rare book that reviewers and readers live for: both plot- and character-driven, a stay-up-all-night-reading romp of more than 500 pages that you’ll desperately wish was double that. This is elegant, witty, force-of-nature writing, and Lauren Owen should have a long and illustrious career ahead of her.”The Dallas Morning News
 
“The book’s energy, its wide reach and rich detail make it a confident example of the ‘unputdownable’ novel.”The Economist

“Ambitious, elegant, atmospheric, and often deeply poignant, The Quick is a seamless blend of Victorian London and rich imagination. This is a book to savor.”—Tana French, bestselling author of In the Woods and Broken Harbor
 
“[A] creepy debut . . . a thrilling tale . . . This book will give you chills even on a hot day.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Forget Jack the Ripper—it’s the curiously pale aristocratic types you need to beware of in this supernatural Gothic nightmare. . . . Owen’s stylishly sinister world of betrayal and Lovecraftian monsters will have you sleeping with the lights on.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“A sly and glittering addition to the literature of the macabre . . . As soon as you have breathed with relief, much worse horrors begin. It’s a skilled, assured performance, and it’s hard to believe it is a first novel.”—Hilary Mantel, bestselling author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
 
“A big, sly bucketful of the most tremendous fun . . . At first, The Quick seems like a really terrific, plain old tale of yesteryear—à la John Banville or Peter Carey or Eleanor Catton. . . . [But then] things begin to really rollick. . . . [Owen] weaves what’s here with what’s beyond as easily as J.K. Rowling does, and as with Rowling, she seems to feel particularly at home with the beyond.”Slate

“[An author of] prodigious gifts . . . Owen captures Dickens’s London with glee and produces a number of characters Dickens would be happy to call his own.”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Quick is ambitious in both scope and structure. . . . Her London is exquisitely detailed. . . . [Owen] inhabits the breadth and panorama of the Victorian tale.”The Washington Post

“The first quarter of this debut novel is a lovely, poetic tale. . . . The last half is entirely bonkers and totally unexpected. Read it with the lights on.”—The New Republic
 
“Make no mistake, The Quick is good reading. . . . Adventure of the first order, firmly rooted in both the tropes of the genre and the skilfully rendered texture of the period . . . driven by sharp storytelling, thought-provoking ideas, and strong characters.”The Globe and Mail
 

“Like the best gothic fiction, this dark tale of manners and morals closely guards its secrets; over hundreds of pages, one unspoken word lurks in the corners of every character’s and reader’s mind. By the end of Owen’s precocious first novel, set in the narrow streets and cavernous interiors of Victorian England, you will understand viscerally how monsters are made and what it means to be human.”More magazine

“Lauren Owen is an impressive storyteller and with this ambitious debut, the literary world will soon take notice. Part gothic mystery, part Victorian romance, The Quick is a novel where the glamorous and the macabre collide. . . . With suspenseful rhythm and illustrious prose, Owen succeeds at crafting a fresh, enchanting portrait of Victorian London wrapped around an irresistible mystery that is at once beautiful and terrifying.”Bustle
 
“[The Quick] hits the mark in terms of suspense and gothic literature. . . . Reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and [Elizabeth] Kostova’s The Historian.”The Times-News

“If you are a fan of literary Gothic—think Susanna Clarke or John Harwood—buy this book. You won’t regret it. . . . A long gallery of beautifully drawn characters makes the many pages of The Quick turn as swiftly as those of a Wilkie Collins novel.”BookPage

“Seductive . . . extraordinarily polished . . . a book for readers to lose themselves in.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“Lauren Owen—a brand-new author with an M.A. in Victorian Literature—has produced her own mind-bending tour de force.”Locus
 
“Owen has created an intricate world in which the reader feels a part. Take the trip, if you dare, into a luscious Victorian London rendered by a gifted young British writer who seems weaned on equal parts Sherlock Holmes, Buffy Summers and Harry Potter.”Shelf Awareness
 
“An intricate, sinister epic . . . an impressive feat . . . Owen proves a master at anticipating readers’ thoughts about future happenings and then crumbling them into dust. Her world building is exceptional, and readers will simultaneously embrace and shrink from the atmosphere’s elegant ghastliness.”Booklist
 
“An elegantly written gothic epic . . . Owen’s soaring imagination and her light-handed take on magic save this story from being either obvious or boring. . . . The journey from one genre to another is satisfying and surprisingly fresh.”Kirkus Reviews
 
“An intriguing blend of historical, gothic, and supernatural fiction . . . [The Quick features] wonderful atmospheric writing.”Library Journal
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What genre (or genres) would you say THE QUICK falls into? How does it embrace or subvert the conventions of those genres?

2. What literary influences do you see in THE QUICK?

3. Emily Richter figures into many of the book’s most pivotal early scenes. How much do you think she knows or doesn’t know about James and Christopher’s relationship, and about Eustace’s change? Why do you think she tells James to “be careful”?

4. Discuss the figure of the owl throughout the book.

5. Characters agree to the Exchange for different reasons. Why reasons do you think Adeline’s fiancé, John had? Are there any reasons that would tempt you to join the Aegolius Club?

6. Why do you think Mrs. Price turns children? How does their group compare to other family units in the book?

7. Why do the Club members refer to the living as the “Quick”?

8. How does Mould change over the course of the book? Do you think he remains a man of science to the end? Why might Edmund have delayed so long in giving Mould what he wanted?

9. Charlotte’s quiet life is altered drastically by the book’s events. In what ways does it change for the better? When in the book do you think she is happiest?

10. Had you heard of a priest hole before reading THE QUICK? Why do you think Owen chose to begin and end the book there?

11. The ending of THE QUICK seems to beg for a sequel. What do you think happened to James? What directions could you imagine a sequel going in? Whose stories might it follow? When and where might it take place?


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