“Underneath is another city entirely” — With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan

With Fate Conspire is the fourth and, for now, final book in Brennan’s Onyx Court series. Following the pattern of previous volumes, this one takes place about a century on from the action of A Star Shall Fall. It focuses on a new set of characters, and a new threat to the existence of the Onyx Hall, the faerie realm which lies beneath London’s heart.

It’s a more than worthy conclusion.

The year is 1884. The Onyx Hall is crumbling, threatened with dissolution in the face of the construction of the inner Circle of the London Underground — an iron ring around London.  The Hall cannot survive, and without its protection, the fae will be forced to flee. Only the Queen’s will holds the fabric of the Hall together, but Lune has not been seen in public in years. While her Prince of the Stone, a bricklayer’s son, strives to maintain some measure of order, unscrupulous powers in the lawless Goblin Market scheme for ways to build their own kingdoms out of the coming ruin, and other fae seek means of finding safety in a city that will not welcome them openly.

In the Goblin Market, the shapechanger Dead Rick serves a brutal master, with no memory of his life before the last seven years. Desperate to recover his memories, he strikes a bargain with a mysterious fae, a bargain that will lead him into dangerous territory. Above, in the streets of London, Eliza O’Malley is hunting the faeries who stole her childhood sweetheart from the rookeries of Whitechapel nearly seven years ago. No one believes her, but she refuses to give up. Her search will lead her across the city, from meetings of the London Fairy Society to the workhouse, and in the end to the ruined greatness of the Onyx Hall. Both of them will be drawn into the conflict for the survival of faerie London, the conclusion of which proves innovative and startlingly appropriate.

Occasional characters from preceding volumes make brief appearances — the Goodmeade sisters, Irrith, the ghost of Galen St. Clair — but Eliza and Dead Rick carry the book’s weight. They carry it well.

I confess, I find it hard to be critical about Brennan’s historical fantasies. The Onyx Court books hit a great many of my narrative kinks, and with fantastic characterisation and a keen eye for the depth and detail of historic London — a London of faeries and Fenians, dockworkers and costermongers, philosophers and peelers — With Fate Conspire lives up to expectations. The infrequent device of occasionally interrupting the narrative’s forward progress to provide a scene or two of context from years in the past works surprisingly well, and if at times the pace slackens a little, the trade-off is worth it. It seems to me that with this volume, Brennan has taken a level in skill with prose: her writing was good before, but it’s gotten even better.

There are two things which stood out to me as particularly excellent about With Fate Conspire. I’ve no idea whether or not it’s conscious choice on the author’s part, but from Midnight Never Come, the main characters in the Onyx Court books have come from progressively lower down the class ladder: And Ashes Lie features gentry protagonists, while A Star Shall Fall‘s Galen St. Clair has a decidedly middle-class background. With Fate Conspire gives us the working-class perspective, and it’s a refreshing change: how often, in fantasy, does a working-class woman get climactic speeches? Or, for that matter, in fiction at all?

“All yer power, all yer wealth, all those things that make this place important – they don’t come from nowhere. They’re just the top layer, the crust on the pie, and underneath is another city entirely. The Irish, and the Italians, and the lascars – even the Jews – all those people who are not English and are not a part of the world you see, but they are bloody well part of London, too.” [483]

London-Irish Eliza O’Malley’s speech is all the more powerful for being true — a truth rarely spoken in fantasy. That’s something to warm the cockles of my socialist heart.

The other thing I found particularly brilliant about With Fate Conspire is far more minor and more personal: Eliza is London Irish, from Whitechapel, and throughout the book the London Irish community and the presence of Fenianism are treated with tact, sympathy, and concern for historical realism. I’m so used to cliché Irishness in outside portrayals of my fellow countrymen—and women—that it’s a bit of a relief to see that Brennan chose the road less travelled — and did so extremely well.

While to me the climax involving the Ephemeral Engine seems a little lacking — for me, it didn’t have the emotional impact I think the author was probably aiming for — that’s a small quibble. With Fate Conspire is a thoughtfully entertaining dénouement to an excellent series, and all round, a really good book.


Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. She also reviews for Ideomancer.com.


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