Manners and Monsters

Title: Manners and Monsters

Publisher: Ribbonwood Press

Author: Tilly Wallace

Pages: 318pp

Price: $15.99 (paperback) / $3.99 (ebook)

Hannah Miles is content with her life — mostly. She and her parents are devoted to one another, her best friend in the whole world is about to be married, and she is doing important work alongside her father, attempting to cure the … ahem … affliction that is plaguing a number of aristocratic ladies, including her mother. Then there is a ghastly murder, and suddenly Hannah finds herself working alongside the gruff, snarly Viscount Wycliff. He suspects that one of the Afflicted is responsible for bashing in a man’s head and scooping out his brains. Hannah, who is friends with some of the Afflicted ladies and does not wish their secret to be exposed, reluctantly agrees to aid him in his investigation. The deeper they dig, though, the more they discover about the Afflicted, the origins of their curse, and the true nature of their unnatural condition ….

Manners and Monsters is another title that popped up on a recommended reading list. Despite the fact that I have little interest in zombies, I was intrigued by the tagline (“A lady never reveals the true extent of her decay …”), and I decided to give the book a chance. It turned out to be not only a fun romp, but also a biting indictment of misogyny and classism.

The world of Manners and Monsters has a lot in common with our own Regency England, with one notable difference: magic. Vampires, werewolves, and mages live side-by-side with ordinary humans. In this fantastical realm, Napoleon was defeated and sent into exile — but not before his dark mages created a terrible curse. Embedding that curse in fancy facial powder, they sent it to England, where the wives and daughters and mistresses of the men in power were exposed, killed, and then rose again. With their hearts stilled, only “pickled cauliflower” (the euphemism employed to avoid offending delicate sensibilities) holds their hunger and rot at bay.

Hannah’s mother, Seraphina, a powerful mage who fought on the front lines, was one of the first infected. With her (technical) death, her powers manifested in a male in northern England. The country always has twelve mages, and Seraphina had been the first female mage in a century; not because magic failed to appear in women, but because female mages were executed at birth. The misogyny of their society was so strong for so long that, all through the Middle Ages and into the early years of the Enlightenment, the Church and government actively pursued and hunted down any women with magic.

I love books that do that: they look light and fluffy on the outside, the perfect escape reading. But when you dig down and really examine the narrative, there is some serious analysis and dismantling of important social issues going on. In the case of Manners and Monsters, Wallace uses the trope of zombies to look at classism, misogyny, definitions of life and death, and even what it means to be human. Viscount Wycliff, as the character who seems to have every social advantage, has his views challenged the most thoroughly; by the end of the book, he has begun to question his opinions about women in general and the Afflicted in particular.

But even Hannah is affected by their investigation. She begins to question the constraints placed on women in their society, the constraints placed on her as the plain but intelligent daughter of a mage and a physician. I have no doubt that, as the series progresses, her thirst for something more will grow.

Even better, I look forward to the ancient Egyptian connection to the curse of the Afflicted. Their hearts may have stopped, but that organ remains intact while the rest of the body rots. Hannah hypothesizes that it may have to do with the Egyptian idea that the soul inhabits the heart. I wonder how that will bear out?

Highly recommended to fans of Regency-era paranormal romance, as well as fans of The Girl With Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson, The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, the Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Iron Seas books by Meljean Brook.