Once J.R.R. Tolkien talked about the suspension of disbelief in an essay called On Fairy Tales. He suggested, and it has pretty much become the gospel since then, that for readers to accept the implausible parts of a story that the rest should be grounded firmly in reality. In other words we believe in the wizards and the elves because of the hominess of the Shire.
There are supernatural elements galore in The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher, so many that I won’t be able to catalog most of them in this review, but what makes it all work so well, is underneath it all is a world that is stick-stone-bone solid.
Set in England, around the middle of the nineteenth century The Oversight is the story of an organization called, shortly, the Oversight. It is made up of five individuals, Sara, Mr. Sharp. Cook, the Smith, and Hodge, who all have various supernatural abilities, and whose mission is to protect the vast majority of humanity from the sinister side of that unseen and unknown world. There is also a damsel in distress, Lucy Harker, a very evocative name, a travelling carnival, and more than a few villainous lawyers. It’s a wonderful cast, vivid and believable, from the heroes to villains and the just-plain folk on the sidelines.
The story, which starts with a kidnapped girl with a mysterious background, and unwinds through the history of the Oversight, to the latest attempt by dark forces to overthrow it, is thrilling and full of wonders; wonders that seem to give us just a glimpse of a world as diverse and varied as our own, but full of magic, both good and bad. The various plotlines, involving the Oversight, Lucy, the Templebane brothers and their sons, and various and sundry other characters, all unspool and interweave, but never become confusing or confused. He also has a deft hand with just when to switch from one part of the tale to another, leaving us hanging but not with the dread clichés of melodrama.
The framework of reality that supports all of the fantastical surface is what made this book exceptional for me. The bones of this story are gritty and real, but somehow also leave you with a glimpse of a world even stranger and more mysterious that the one that takes place on the surface. It’s a kind of quiet epiphany that most writers would love to accomplish, and few do; when prose, plot and character somehow come together to transcend the sum of the parts.
If it seems like I am gushing, I am. It’s not unfair to compare this novel to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and if you know my fondness for that novel you will know that it is no small praise. The Oversight is the first book in a trilogy, and I am looking forward to the next two novels with bated breath.