Will has just come back from the Napoleonic wars to England, having become an assistant to the brilliant but poor Surgeon Alec Comrie. They are starting a practice in the slums of Cripplegate, and have some familiarity with the Doomsday Men; the body-snatchers who provide corpses for surgeons. They are also known the rich and equally brilliant Surgeon Dionysus Atherton.
The plot of this tale is rollicking yet layered, so I am loathe to tell you much more, but after a botched grave-robbery, and some mob justice, a grieving prostitute is accused of murder, and Will Starling, with one foot in the street and one foot in the world of science and medicine, begins to see a conspiracy of diabolical cleverness that may involve Atherton, and may also just ensnare anyone who gets caught up in it.
Like the medical science of the time, the world portrayed by Mr. Weir is bloody and short. This is an historical novel that is full of sharp detail, but it’s not about hoop skirts and fox hunts. There is a loaf of anger in this story and most of it is righteous and well-deserved. Most of the characters in Will Starling have the deck stacked against them, but they push on, with a perseverance and an elan that makes a grim book a pleasure to read. Not to say that things are all sunshine and roses; there is plenty of misery to go around. Unrequited love, injustice, poverty, betrayal, arrogance, hubris, it’s all here in spades.
The bravery of common people, and the dignity of the downtrodden, and Mr. Weir’s care for these characters makes it all work. Will, the narrator is the star, but all of the rest of the characters, not matter how small, are brought to life. Meg Nancarrow will haunt me for years. She’s the kind of character that could carry her own book with ease.
When the story starts to race towards the end I got the feeling that I often get with the best of books; that the outcome is both surprising and inevitable, and that as much as I wanted to find out what happened, I dreaded the book coming to end. The question Ms. Shelley asked so many years ago is still relevant, and in Will Starling Mr. Weir shows that the answer may never be known; but posing that question, and doing it with daring and originality, is important enough.