Primary Genre(s): General Fiction
Published: 4 February 2020 by Atria Books
Page count: 384
My Format: free eARC via NetGalley
Would I recommend it: Probably not
Commission Link: Buy Things in Jars
My rating: ★★☆☆☆
In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.
Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.
Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.
Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.
Did you read that synopsis? This book checks so many boxes for things I love in novels: Victorian London, female sleuth, anatomists, gothic mystery, peculiar kid, supernatural powers, apothecaries! What is not to love, right? Unfortunately, it turns out there is quite a bit. Here are my pros and cons for Things in Jars:
- The premise is outstanding.
- Bridie is a very unique character.
- Cora is a very unique character.
- Ruby is a very unique character.
- Christabel is a very unique character.
- Some of the writing was exquisite. There were some instances where the words were crisp and descriptive and oh so very Victorian. While I do have complaints about some of the excessively descriptive writing in the book (see cons), there are times when the scene setting was so well done that I felt like I could feel and smell and see exactly where the story was taking place.
- There was a Dickensian quality to the book that I appreciated, particularly with regard to some of the odd characters Bridie encounters during her investigations. Mr. Scudder and Mr. Hoy (guards at Newgate Prison) are good examples of these whimsical side characters.
- The premise was outstanding… but a bit flawed in my opinion. The story felt a bit erratic. Throughout the entire book I felt like there wasn’t a solid focus on what the story was supposed to be. It almost seems like there were too many things going on at once and none of them got the real attention they needed to make this book great.
- Bridie is a very unique character… but, I didn’t feel like I knew her. We even get some of her background story and I still didn’t feel like I knew her. There was so much potential to make her a truly outstanding character, but she was just too one-dimensional.
- Cora is a very unique character… but she was really pointless to the story. If you are going to introduce a seven-foot tall housemaid into the story then give her a bigger part in the story. I felt like she needed to have more purpose and was essentially a wasted opportunity.
- Ruby is a very unique character… but what the heck was he even in the story for? Honestly, I don’t get it. Ruby is a tattoo-covered ghost that follows Bridie around and helps her with things from time to time. To me, the whole Ruby plot line took this book from an interesting Victorian period fantasy/mystery story about a mythical creature, and turned it into a pseudo-paranormal farce. Ruby is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t belong in this book. [And if I am supposed to believe that Ruby only existed to Bridie because of what she was smoking in her pipe, then his presence is even more useless and odd.]
- Christabel is a very unique character… but I never got to know her either. Bridie could have been searching for a wooden box in the story, rather than a child, and it probably wouldn’t have made a difference to me. The fantasy surrounding Christabel wasn’t developed enough in my opinion.
- Some of the writing was exquisite… but some of it was downright odd. There was one thing the author did so much that I started noting it. Every time a new character was introduced we’d be inundated with pages of background information about the person. Way too much background information in my opinion. We would get details about clothes they liked to wear, physical appearance, facial expressions, level of education, and even their philosophies on life. Most of this was unnecessary and pointless – even for the main characters! Plus, there was one type of phrase the author used over and over in these descriptions. Here are some examples:
“Slight of stature and large of head.”
“Sharp of nose and thin of lip.”
“Unremarkable of head, slim of shoulder.”
“Long of limb and thin of hair.”
“His face is steep of forehead, straight of nose, firm of chin, and trim of whiskers.”
This is just a small sampling of the instances of this phrasing in the book. Yes, it is very formal and very Victorian; however, it was so overused as new characters were introduced that I started having a Pavlovian reaction in anticipation of a new version of this phrase and I was never disappointed. It happens so frequently you could turn it into a drinking game while you are reading the book!
- Some chapters started off strangely. For example, you will finish one chapter and start another and the beginning of the next chapter will randomly start talking about something completely different – like a bird flying around town and you will read about what the bird sees. There appears to be no link between this bird and what you were just reading! That is until you are several paragraphs – or even several pages – into this new, meandering interlude when the original storyline reappears. I found this to be quite distracting and for me it increased my inability to stay interested in the story.
I found some parts of this book to be long-winded, but other parts were beautifully written. The formal language used in this novel was either exquisite or verbose. It was honestly an either/or situation for me throughout– there was never a point where it was just good, it was either great or bad. Because of this, I felt myself frequently slipping in and out of interest in the story.
However, it if was just the writing style that impacted my enjoyment of the book, I’d have probably given it 3-stars. Alas, I really felt like the story had no focus and the characters were too one-dimensional. I can’t even categorize the book well! Is it mystery, paranormal, fantasy, magical realism, historical fiction, gothic horror? Interestingly, it is currently categorized as simply General Fiction by the publisher.
This book has a lot of potential, but sadly it just didn’t rise to it in my opinion and it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me overall. This appears to be an unpopular opinion regarding this book, but it is my honest one. I’m happy others were able to find more to like about it than I did.
Thank you to NetGalley and Atria Books for a free electronic ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
If you would like to read this book and form your own opinion, please consider purchasing through this link: Buy Things in Jars. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you. Thanks!
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(image from Goodreads)