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The Music of The Spheres

Elizabeth Redfern


US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-399-14763-2

420 Pages ; 24.95

Date Reviewed: 02-22-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Mystery, Horror


It always helps to be first. In recent times, Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist' was the first of a wave of historical mysteries. Dense, intricate and tremendously popular, it lead the way for a number of other authors who were either writing in the same genre before without the publicity or decided to take up the slack now that Carr is writing for Time magazine. In the latter group is Elizabeth Redfern, whose impressively grim 'The Music of the Spheres' debuted last summer to so-so reviews in the big newspapers. I was almost put off by what I read, but I'm glad I wasn't. In 'The Music of The Spheres' Redfern delivers a detailed and downbeat historical novel that more than compensates for its tendency towards the excessive.

Set in London in 1795, when England and France are at war, it follows the downward spiral of Jonathan Absey, a spy catcher who can't focus on his job after the murder of his daughter. Pursuing the death of his daughter to the detriment of his duties, he begins to find himself on the edge of keeping his job. He's demoted, given the less desirable cases. Of course, the case he's given is much more than it seems, and he stumbles upon not only a major bit of espionage but also the track of his daughter's murderer.

Characters in 'The Music of the Spheres' tend to be either relentlessly, depressingly realistic or melodramatically exaggerated. The relentlessly downbeat aura tends to mix well with the melodrama, and the overall effect is rather exhilarating. Death follows degradation, as the weaknesses of each character are exploited. Jonathan allows his homosexual brother Alexander to help him in his pursuit of a band of spies who may be concealed within an astronomical society. Redfern engages our sympathy and disgust simultaneously, a tricky business that she handles rather well. But when she gets to the aristocratic set, she goes way over the top, like an arrow set forth into a smoke-laden sky. Unfortunately, the arrow is the target; it can never hit itself. Fortunately, the smoke laden sky is fantastically detailed with complex international politics and astronomical science of the late 18th century. If the characters are a bit beyond the pale, at least their environment is impressively realistic.

But Redfern is not one to let any character off easily. Everyone is tainted, and the tension mounts as readers wonder if anyone can -- or should escape from the complex trap that Redfern closes around them. While it's questionable whether any character will be redeemed by their actions in 'The Music of the Spheres', it rapidly becomes clear that novel's redemption will come only if the reader is willing to enjoy the deeply detailed degradation that Redfern has in mind. For those willing to put up with ugliness, for those willing to meddle in melodrama, for those readers who are enchanted by the details of an age of Enlightenment drawn darkly, 'The Music of the Spheres' will reward you with remarkably complex recreation of a world you will be glad is lodged firmly and distantly in the past.