Thursday, July 7, 2016

Review - Elements of Mind by Walter H. Hunt

Short review: James Esdaile refuses to hand over an artifact of tremendous mystical power to William Davey, sending Davey on a journey that will take him from London to Paris and then to Egypt and India and back.

The Crystal Palace
Is where the story begins
Also where it ends

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Elements of Mind is a Victorian-era alternate history (or more accurately, secret history) novel that imagines that the magic of mesmerism is real, and that a hidden conflict spanning three continents took place between roughly 1845 and 1861 over a mysterious artifact that holds the key to great power and poses a threat to mankind's very existence. In what seems to be a clear effort to evoke the novel Dracula, the story is told in epistolary format, in the form of letters and testimonials by the various characters recounting events after the fact. If there could be such a thing, this book could best be described as a "comfortable thriller", with stakes that the characters all regard as being of the highest order, but which they set about dealing with for the most part in the most proper and gentlemanly manner.

In an interesting twist, the novel starts with the climatic showdown between Dr. James Esdaile and the Reverend William Davey, a confrontation that leaves Davey disappointed and Esdaile dead. Esdaile, a Scottish surgeon, is accompanied by his wife, who has been possessed by a cthonic spirit that serves as his guardian. Davey, ostensibly a clergyman, is the chairman of the secret Committee of English Mesmerists. When they meet in the famed Crystal Palace in London, Davey demands that Esdaile hand over an artifact with mysterious powers to the Committee, as the doctor had promised to do. Esdaile refuses, and then, in a twist that Davey did not see coming, commits suicide, denying both Davey and the cthonic spirit their prizes, as the very architecture of the Crystal Palace interferes with the quasi-mystical mesmer powers that both purportedly possess.

This inconclusive (albeit fatal) encounter sends Davey on a years long investigation that finds him traveling to India and back, crossing both Europe and Africa along the way. Much of the story is told in the form of interviews, as Davey tracks down a particular person who might have information concerning the disposition of the missing artifact and then engages in a well-mannered interrogation of them. One of the defining features of this book is quite simply how almost unfailingly polite everyone is throughout - even when they are allegedly incensed with one another. This is probably an effect of Hunt trying to write the characters in a way that is appropriate to the historical period, but it does result in the interpersonal conflicts feeling somewhat tame and underwhelming. At several points characters remark upon the crude and brutal nature of Davey's methods of maintaining control of the Committee, but to a modern reader he seems almost incurably genteel in his activities. This highlights one of the greatest challenges an author faces when writing historical fiction: How does one keep the characters true to the period from which they supposedly hail, but also keep a modern reader engaged and entertained. In Elements of Mind Hunt manages to navigate this treacherous waterway reasonably well, but when he errs, it seems that he errs on the side of historical accuracy.

The book is something of a historical fantasy, melding actual events from the Victorian era with fantastical elements - in this case the mystical power of mesmerism and the presence of a variety of cthonic spirits that are variously indifferent and malign but which generally disguise themselves as humans or natural weather-related phenomena. There isn't anything in the book that would contradict actual history, and as a result, the events described in it form something of a hidden or secret history, or an account of what might have happened that sits alongside what actually did happen. As is the case in many secret histories, the protagonist's path is crossed by actual historical figures such as British authors Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, noted hypnotherapist Dr. James Braid, French nobleman Charles Dupotet, and British Army officers Alexander Roberts Dunn and Evelyn Wood. These cameo appearances serve as little Easter eggs for those who are well-versed in Nineteenth century British history, and are woven into the story seamlessly enough that they shouldn't throw those who are not so well-versed out of the narrative flow.

If one takes the story on its own terms, it is a tale of dark danger: The artifact that Davey seeks is alleged to contain a malevolent spirit with the power to open the "Glass Door" to a realm where a host of other malignant spirits await the opportunity to descend upon mankind. Along his journey, Davey encounters children who summon spirits to commit patricide, powerful spiritual beings who seek to aid him in a roundabout manner, an Egyptian playing a dangerous game with his own collection of malignant spirits, a powerful water creature that threatens his life, and finally, a variety of both perils and allies in India. Eventually his journey takes him all the way back to England, where Davey finds himself frustrated by chance and powerful enemies. All of this takes place behind the scenes of everyday life, with those not part of the "mesmer" world completely oblivious to the dangers that lurk around the spiritual corner.

The most obvious way to read the book is to imagine that the fantasy described in it is actually true, and the events it describes are an account of a dire threat to the very existence of humanity. However, the mystical elements of the book are described in such a vague manner that there is an alternate way to read the book. Because the mesmerism practiced by the various mystically inclined characters in the book is described as creating no effect that isn't explained by mundane causes, one can read this book as a collection of Victorian men and women comically waggling their fingers at one another and imagining that they are causing various results. As far as Davey is concerned, he is so confident in his own power that every time he encounters someone who tries to use the mesmer finger signs against him, he determines that their failure to have any effect is due to his own skill with the art. One can only imagine the other characters thinking the same of Davey's efforts against him. In one of the big confrontations in the book, Davey resorts to threatening someone with a gun rather than trying to use his mystical powers to persuade the target to do what he wants. On at least three critical junctures the power of mesmerism is held to be completely ineffective, although two of those occasions are ascribed to the dampening properties of the Crystal Palace. Time and again, the mystical powers prove to be elusive enough that it seems quite possible that they don't actually exist anywhere outside of the minds of those devoted to believing they are real.

No matter which way one reads Elements of the Mind, it remains a highly entertaining book. With a plot full of twists and turns that serves in part as a travelogue across the British Empire of the Nineteenth century coupled with a collection of interesting fictional characters whose lives intertwine with some colorful historical figures, the novel will engage the reader from the outset and keep them intrigued to the end.

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  1. Sounds great, but I'm just not sure if it's for my tastes.

    1. @fredamans: It is a good book, but if historical fiction isn't your thing it probably wouldn't be very rewarding to read.

  2. I enjoyed the book,finding it a pretty easy read. The atmosphere of Victorianism is part of what makes it good, evoking the era with the mannerisms and speech patterns rather than spending pages and pages on description to set the stage. Much more concise way to tell the story and still let one immerse themselves in the time period.

    1. @MaryKali: I enjoyed the book as well, and the Victorian sensibility provided a nice atmosphere. My only issue is that to a reader not particularly well-versed in Victorian mores might be confused as to why Davey is considered to be so uncouth and brutal in how he runs the Committee.