Charlie Fletcher, previously best known for his Middle Grade STONEHEART trilogy, makes his adult debut with The Oversight, the first book in his OVERSIGHT trilogy. I listened to Hachette Audio’s version read by the illustrious Simon Prebble, an Audie-winning narrator who always brings out the best in the books he reads.
The story is set in a supernatural Victorian London where five gifted people who call themselves The Oversight attempt to protect the world from the paranormal baddies that live in another dimension and are trying to break through. The Oversight used to be a much larger group, but sometime in the past they were decimated by an event that is related to us bit by bit throughout the story. As long as there are at least five people (a “hand”) left, the border between worlds will stand, but the group is now so small and weak that the city, and the rest of the world, is in danger. There are other people in London who know about the supernatural terrors and are willing to work for evil patrons in order to get what they want. Then there are the witch-hunters who want to destroy anyone with magical powers. Thus, the Oversight has plenty of both human and non-human enemies, but normal Londoners don’t even know they exist.
As the story begins, an uncanny orphaned girl named Lucy has been sold to the Oversight. She is a Glint — she can see past events by touching objects they were associated with. The Oversight is hoping she’ll join them and help boost their dwindling numbers, but some of their enemies are interested in Lucy’s powers, too. Just as Lucy and the Oversight are beginning to trust each other, tragedy strikes and they are separated. Lucy is on her own as she tries to figure out who she is, what the Oversight is, and what she’s going to do about it all.
I loved The Oversight from page one. It reminded me most of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. (At this point half of my readers will stop right here and press the “buy” button and half of them will stop right here and go watch cute kitten videos on YouTube, so nothing I say past this point matters at all, but I’ll say it anyway just so I can feel like I’ve fulfilled my obligation.) The most obvious similarity is the Victorian setting which Fletcher imbues with so much texture. It’s dark and grungy and gothic. Evil breath-stealing creatures lurk in shadowy alleys while oyster-eating witch hunters use their carriages to hold secret meetings with priests.
The next obvious similarity is the pace. It’s slow. Fletcher sensuously describes the scenery and his characters’ interactions, but he’s also a miser in the sense that he’s in no hurry to reveal anything. He gives us scattered bits of information and back story as if he was hand-feeding a baby bird. It’s not clear how each of his characters’ plots is related to all the others or how everything might come together in the end. A sense of creeping dread grows as connections are made and as characters are captured, injured, betrayed, or lost. While the plot is rarely exciting, it’s always fascinating and Fletcher’s writing style, which is perfectly suited to the time period and to the gothic feel of the story, is admirable enough to carry us through the slow spots (though not nearly as clever and delightfully satirical as Susanna Clarke’s, but how could it be?). Some of the plot elements in The Oversight are also reminiscent of those in Clarke’s book, especially the use of mirrors and rings, but mostly Fletcher’s work is original and creative. (No footnotes, though. Too bad.)
There is the expected climactic scene at the end (just like Clarke’s book), but threads are left dangling and ready for a sequel. I’ll be picking that up as soon as it’s available, and definitely in audio. I wouldn’t think of reading this to myself if I can have Simon Prebble read it to me with his beautiful British accent. (Did I mention that he also narrated Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell? I’m sure that’s another reason I couldn’t help but make the comparison.) The Oversight is one of the best audiobooks I’ve read this year.