Jacqueline Lepore’s Descent into Dust is an atmospheric Victorian pastiche complete with a forbidding mansion, an innocent child in danger, the shadow of madness, and vampires. Emma Andrews is a young and wealthy widow coming to the moors to visit her newly married half-sister and their cousins. Emma has always felt like an outsider. The specter of her mother’s madness and death haunt her. Soon after arriving at Dulwich Manor, Emma has a frightening encounter on the moors. The house, which has a strong Catholic history, has Latin aphorisms carved onto its walls, and most of them, when Emma translates them, add to her sense of foreboding. Emma distrusts her own senses, but she should not. The village and the prehistoric settlement on the hill beyond the house are the home to an ancient evil, and that evil has drawn a powerful vampire determined to waken it.
Lepore follows the slow, steady build-up of suspense favored by Victorian writers quite well. Children in the local village are dying of a strange wasting disease. Emma’s little cousin Henrietta tells her a story about her imaginary friend Marius, who taps on her window at night and demands she let him in. Later, Victoria, Henrietta’s favorite doll, disappears. The doll wore a simple cross around its neck and it’s pretty obvious why it has vanished. Meanwhile, the usual array of country house visitors arrives to provide distraction and useful information about the history of the area, the convergence of ley-lines, and the local legends about the place. Among the visitors is the shaggy and stern Valerian Fox. Plainly, Fox knows more than he is telling about the area and the presence of the imaginary Marius. He may know more than he is telling about Emma, too.
When Emma is attacked by a gypsy stableman, he calls her by a name she has never heard, Dhampir, and eventually Emma discovers that she is the offspring of a living vampire and a human – the best equipped person to kill vampires.
After I finished Descent into Dust I looked on Amazon and discovered that the reviewers there all liked it much more than I did. There is one 2-star review, and all the rest are 3-star or higher. I liked the same things they did, perhaps just not as much. I thought the plot was predictable, primarily because Lepore follows a very traditional Victorian plot structure. She did an excellent job, for the most part, of capturing a sense of 19th century England. She could have changed up the plot a bit, however.
I found the pacing to be frustrating at times. The gypsy calls Emma “dhampir.” After Fox saves her from the gypsy, she doesn’t bother to ask him if he’s ever heard that word. Later, Emma, Fox and the warrior priest Father Luke battle Marius, and Marius also calls her a dhampir. Several pages later, after they bandage wounds, debrief the battle, drink tea and so on, she finally asks Fox if he knows what it means. Okay. I’m exaggerating there. They may not actually drink tea.
Lepore also needs to deepen her characterization. Emma is well-drawn. Father Luke, who is an uncertain ally, is interesting. Fox barely escapes being a vampire-hunter cliché. (Let’s put it this way: valerian root is a calming agent, and Fox’s first name is well-chosen.) His “secret,” when it is revealed, inspires yawns. Emma’s half-sister Allysa is a one-note character, and the cousins are not much better. The cousins, especially Mary, seem to exist solely to think badly of Emma so that they can apologize at the end for misjudging her.
What Lepore excels at is the atmosphere. The dark house with its Catholic touches, the eldritch hawthorn tree and the prehistoric burial site that is the location of the climactic battle, the swirling mists and fogs – all are superbly done. While I think she creates the Victorian experience very well, I would remind Ms. Lepore that we read differently in the 21st century than people did in the 19th. A young woman who was allowed to read novels often spent an entire evening reading, immersing herself in the story, hence long passages and detailed descriptions. She wasn’t scrolling through a chapter on her e-reader on the bus going to work, having watched the adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone on her computer over the weekend.
The ending of Descent into Dust makes it clear that this is intended as a series. Lepore’s writing skills are fine, and in Emma, at least, she has an interesting character. Father Luke’s religious-order-within-the-order was an interesting take on a secret society. Lepore was somewhat hampered by the need to set up her series characters; origin books can be difficult. I didn’t like the book as much as I expected to, but I think Lepore can create a successful series.