This is the first book of the year that really swept me away, it's a fabulous debut novel from Susan Stokes-Chapman which just does everything right from start to finish as far as I'm concerned. I was initially drawn in by the cover so asked for a review copy through work hoping to enjoy it but without any greater expectations.
What I got was a really enjoyable historical mystery with a little bit of romance. The book opens in December 1798 with somebody diving on a shipwreck to try and retrieve Something. Something isn't quite as it should be. From there we move to London in the new year and find Dora Blake in an attic hunched over her workbench working in some jewelry.
She has a pet magpie and a troubled relationship with her uncle and his mistress who are now her guardians. He's run down the family antiquities business and Dora is desperate to find a way out - preferably independence through her jewelry designs. As the plot progresses we meet Edward and his friend Cornelius. Edward is also desperate to find a way out of his working-class background, and into the world of antiquarians. Cornelius has his own issues to deal with.
The mysterious object that was being rescued arrives in London and is delivered to Pandora's uncle, it turns out to be a pithos of great age depicting the myth of Pandora. The men who retrieved it are convinced it's cursed and strange things do seem to happen around it. There's also the question of how a dodgy antique dealer has come by such a thing...
Pandora is an engaging heroine, her desire for independence as a craftswoman does not feel at odds with the era, although her struggle to be taken seriously also feels about right. Her Uncle is a splendidly drawn hero, and Edward and Cornelius are equally appealing characters to get to know and unravel.
I don't want to give away too many spoilers here, but the combination of mystery and mythology worked really well for me. Maybe stop reading this paragraph if you're thinking of reading this book soon. There's a constant question over what the pithos actually is - an outstanding antique that's survived millennia against the odds, or something actually out of legend? It works for me because there's never a definitive answer so there's something of the weird or ghost story here too. The balance between all the elements, including the growing relationship between Dora and Edward makes the perfect page turner. I'll read more profound books this year, probably, but I'll be doing well to find something I enjoy more for sheer craft and fun.
Something else that really marks this book out is Stokes-Chapman's brilliant, and occasionally disgusting way of describing the smells of her London. Everything else, apart from the jewelry, is sketched in, but the smells, especially the bad ones, she goes to town on. It gives the book a particular vividness and adds to the gothic/macabre atmosphere most convincingly.
The final thing that I really appreciated was the afterword - I'm a pedant at the best of times so there were a few details, especially about the opening dive that I questioned. The afterword explains that the diving suit, along with a few other things, had been written about theoretically, but never made or used. It feels like it could be a nod to Mary Shelley's proto science fiction, and left me more than happy to suspend my disbelief.