I started Of Love and Evil with modest expectations. I’d been underwhelmed with the previous Songs of the Seraphim novel, Angel Time. I’m also increasingly annoyed with the trend toward publishing extremely slender books in hardcover. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by Of Love and Evil. (I still think it makes a pretty skinny hardcover, though, at 192 pages.)
When we last saw Toby O’Dare, he had just learned that, ten years previous, his girlfriend Liona had given birth to his son. As Of Love and Evil opens, Liona brings Toby junior to California. Toby gets to see his old love again and meet his son for the first time. He’d love to spend more time with this newfound family, but the angel Malchiah has another mission for him.
Toby is sent to Renaissance Rome, where he is needed to unravel a mystery. The “case” Toby needed to solve in Angel Time was relatively simple, as was its solution. This one is more complex. There’s more than one thing going on here: a young man taken mysteriously ill, and a restless spirit haunting a house. The answers are not so cut-and-dried, and Toby faces the possibility of making a tragic mistake. His newfound faith is tested by someone eager to exploit his uncertainties and doubts. The more nuanced nature of the plot makes this a more satisfying read than Angel Time, as does the fact that it’s clearer in this book why Toby in particular was chosen for this assignment. Only someone who knew poisons and could play the lute would do.
Two scenes in particular stand out for their beautiful writing and emotional resonance. One takes place at an elegant party, where Toby is mesmerized by an array of earthly delights; the imagery is dreamlike and yet a sense of urgency looms in the background because we know Toby is in danger of making a huge mistake. The other is the pub scene just before Toby returns to our own time; it’s a gorgeous scene revolving around music and divine love. These passages show that Anne Rice is still a master of description, and they remind me why I was once such a devoted fan of hers in the first place.
She does still have the habit of latching on to a particular word or phrase and hammering it excessively, rather like she used to do with phrases like “Dark Trick.” The quotation “world enough and time” is one example of this — as is, oddly, the word “caviar” (it’s relevant to the plot, but it still feels overused). There are also a few sections that feel preachy, particularly Toby’s theological discussion with his guardian angel upon returning to the present.
I’m still not sure I “know” Toby as a character, but it’s starting to seem like that’s the point. He doesn’t know himself either, not yet. He has spent years shutting away his emotions and spiritual aspirations and now is trying to redefine himself. His diction may prove distracting to some readers — it’s hard to imagine a 28-year-old man of our time speaking this formally — but one gets used to it after a while. And besides, Rice is better at elevated speech than at trendy speech, so she’s playing to her strengths by characterizing Toby in this way.
Despite some flaws, Of Love and Evil is far more compelling than I expected. It ends with a terrific hook for the next book, and for the first time in some years I find myself eagerly awaiting an Anne Rice novel.