Lauren Owen's 'The Quick' is a Vampiric Shock Wrapped in a Surprise

There are books that surprise you, and books that shock you. For The Quick (Random House), the debut novel by Lauren Owen, we may need to invent an entirely new category of literary hairpin pivots. The Quick contains a secret that must be read to be believed. The resulting astonishment and suspense are an experience unto themselves when a coming-of-age tale of forbidden romance turns one blind street corner to become a vampire murder escapade.

The book begins in 19th century London, where well-to-do siblings James and Charlotte are setting out with much in the way of means, but little family and friends. James finishes college and decides to try his hand at the poet’s life in the city. Charlotte stays back at the family estate, with her primary glimpse of the outside world beaming in through her brother’s letters. When James suddenly disappears, Charlotte must delve into the exceedingly dark world of the city to unravel what’s become of her sibling.

The transformation of James from a budding poet into a member of the undead comes at as big of a shock to the reader as it does to the character. The vampires in Owen's novel are rewriting the rules and discovering ways to assimilate the living (i.e. "the quick") into their brethren against the mortal's will. James and Charlotte have to immediately learn to adapt to this new reality, and to keep up the rollicking pace, so must the reader.

The London that Owen crafts is brooding and sinister, with a flair for gothic and macabre characters. If Ryan Murphy took a break from assembling his favorite actors for another season of American Horror Story, he’d likely write a novel much like The Quick. Owen’s rich sense of setting, with tumbling streams of cobblestones and ancient dusty libraries overseen by gargoyles and smoke, is reminiscent of Dickens and the Brontë sisters. In this way, she becomes a new voice in the Victorian novel’s revival, along with the classic-reborn modern standard The Goldfinch.

Luscious scenery, rapid introductions of unforgettable sidekicks, and all-encompassing tragedy give The Quick an unmistakable, other-worldly flair. The Quick steers clear of sparkly vampire kitsch by embracing the Gothic darkness of the undead literary tradition — more Bram Stoker's Dracula, less every other blood-thirsting bodice-ripper that's come out in the last 10 years. Instead of glamorizing the vampire lifestyle with high school proms and star-crossed love, James and Charlotte don't have a moment to breathe while doom descends from every angle.

At more than 500 pages, The Quick hardly seems like a traditional beach read in the light, fluffy sense, but it's a great book to tote on vacation since the amount of action suppressed into each page makes the reading experience live up to the title. It’s a novel that gives little away in its jacket copy (or most reviews), but dares the reader to take a gamble on a grab bag teeming with intrigue.

Image: Urszula Soltys