Summary and book reviews of The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell

The House on Vesper Sands

by Paraic O'Donnell

The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell X
The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O'Donnell
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  • Published:
    Jan 2021, 408 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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About this Book

Book Summary

With all the wit of a Jane Austen novel, and a case as beguiling as any in Sherlock Holmes' casebook, Paraic O'Donnell introduces a detective duo for the ages, and slowly unlocks the secrets of a startling Victorian mystery.

London, 1893: high up in a house on a dark, snowy night, a lone seamstress stands by a window. So begins the swirling, serpentine world of Paraic O'Donnell's Victorian-inspired mystery, the story of a city cloaked in shadow, but burning with questions: why does the seamstress choose to jump out of that window? Why is there a cryptic message sewn into her skin? And how is she connected to a rash of missing girls, all of whom seem to have disappeared under similar circumstances?

On the case is Gideon Bliss, a young Cambridge dropout who is in love with one of the missing girls, and his partner Inspector Cutter, a detective as sharp and committed to his work as he is wryly hilarious. There's also Octavia Hillingdon, a young reporter determined to tell stories that feel important despite her employer's preference that she write a women's society column. By turns clever, surprising, and impossible to put down, The House on Vesper Sands peels back the mystery layer by layer, offering in the strange undertow of late 19th century London a startling glimpse at the secrets we all hold inside us.

REQUIEM ÆTERNAM
February 1893

In Half Moon Street, just as she came near to the house, Esther Tull felt the first gentleness of the snow.

She paused at the front steps, setting down her case and extending a gloved hand to the railing. It was not that she felt weak, though she had feared she might. The pain was returning, but it was not yet more than she could bear. It was only that she wanted to look up. The longing was small and simple, and it came to her the moment the first flakes touched her cheek. How delicate they felt. Tender, almost, in the rawness of the air. As a child, Esther had felt a peculiar wonder when it snowed. It was like an enchantment, altering the world and making it quiet. She wanted to lift her face, as she had done then, to the soft tumble of smudges crowding the darkness.

She resisted the urge. She would not look up. There was no joy in such things now. Not in this place, on this of all nights. Instead, taking her left hand from the railing, Esther ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think the author chose to open with the scene of the seamstress leaping from the window?
  2. What surprised you most in reading this book? Were there any plot twists you didn't see coming?
  3. In what ways does this book feel like a classic Victorian mystery novel, and in what ways does it subvert genre expectations?
  4. How does the time period—1890s London—influence the events of the story? How might this story look different if it had taken place several decades later, or even today?
  5. In what ways do the book's settings—the church, the House on Vesper Sands itself, and more—help to develop the story? 
  6. Helen Macdonald calls this book, "haunting and unsettling, smokily atmospheric." How would you ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The dynamic between Gideon and Cutter is this book's shining jewel: their dialogue is witty and droll — Cutter being a man of few words and Gideon being a man of far too many, a characterization in line with his academic background. The older, bitter, hardened Cutter proves a worthwhile foil to the youthful, romantic Gideon, and the pair's evolving dynamic provides the novel with its emotional center. The author also successfully paints a portrait of the dark side of Victorian London that is destined to entertain anyone who enjoys neo-Victorian, London-set novels such as Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White or Laura Carlin's The Wicked Cometh...continued

Full Review Members Only (547 words).

(Reviewed by Rachel Hullett).

Media Reviews

Shelf Awareness
The House on Vesper Sands is not a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but Paraic O'Donnell's sophomore effort is the next best thing...O'Donnell brings his story's humor and darker themes into richly rewarding alignment.

The Guardian (UK)
Part Wilkie Collins, part Conan Doyle."[A] cracking good read. The book ends with an epilogue that could be dismissed as superfluous, except that it plainly lays the ground for a sequel. Regardless of where one ends up filing this novel on the bookshelves, that is excellent news for us all.

The Observer (UK)
Tremendously good.

Kirkus Reviews
Author O’Donnell carefully unspools the gothic creepiness of his story, teasing the reader with tidbits of information that raise more questions than they answer...An intriguing, unexpected gothic mashup with elements of Dorothy Sayers, Wilkie Collins, and Josephine Tey.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Stellar. . . . Fans of Sarah Perry (not to mention Dickens and Wilkie Collins) will be captivated by this marvelous feat.

Foreword Reviews
Stellar. . . . Fans of Sarah Perry (not to mention Dickens and Wilkie Collins) will be captivated by this marvelous feat.

The Irish Times
The House on Vesper Sands is brilliantly written, compelling and satisfying in so many ways. It demands to be read by a fire on a cold winter evening (but make sure the doors are locked before you begin). I only wish it had been twice as long.

Author Blurb Helen MacDonald, author of Vesper Flights
The House on Vesper Sands is a delicious book. Somehow it manages to do a hundred marvelous things at once: Funny, eerie, tender, haunting and unsettling, smokily atmospheric and fantastically enjoyable, it's a nineteenth-century supernatural procedural mystery that is also an impassioned meditation on love and duty, loss, suffering, power and injustice. I absolutely loved it.

Author Blurb Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer's English
If you are in the mood and market for a late-Victorian police procedural featuring an irascible inspector and his callow sidekick, a doughty female journalist, the occasional gruesome death, and stunning leaps into the supernatural as persuasive as they are wondrous?and, truly, who isn't?, especially these days?I can't possibly recommend highly enough Paraic O'Donnell's altogether riveting The House on Vesper Sands. Here's a novel that's suspenseful, that's unnerving, that positively bursts with inventiveness. You can feel on every page the joy the author had in its creation, and the reader will happily and helplessly be caught up in that joy.

Author Blurb Sarah Perry, author of Melmoth
The most vivid and compelling portrait of late Victorian London since The Crimson Petal and the White

Author Blurb Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens
The House on Vesper Sands is a Victorian supernatural tale that dresses its ingenious plot in richly immersive historical detail and handles it all with such a mischievous lightness, it's like eating haunted candy. Diabolical and delicious, this is the most enjoyable mystery I've read in years.

Author Blurb Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep
Clever and funny, and exquisitely disturbing, it is an utter joy.

Author Blurb Liz Nugent, author of Our Little Cruelties
Like the love child of Dickens and Conan Doyle, but funnier than both.

Reader Reviews

toni brabender

A Victorian Supernatural done to perfection
Thank you to BrookBrowse.com for an ARC of this lovely book. "The House on Vesper Sands" by Paraic O'Donnell may just be one of the best books of 2021 and it is only January. What doesn't it offer? It is Victorian supernatural with Gothic ...   Read More
Peg A

House on Vesper Sands
I had been wanting to read this book and then was fortunate enough to win it in a book giveaway. That however does not influence this review. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and hope to read more by Paraic O’Donnell. The plot is a mystery wrapped ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Spiritualism in Victorian London

Black and white photo of Spiritualist Emma Hardinge Britten with the faded image of a man superimposed behind herThough the movement of Spiritualism — the belief that the spirits of the dead are able to communicate with the living — was born in New York in 1848 with the Fox sisters, it quickly took hold of the Victorian imagination when it arrived in England in the mid-19th century. Maria Hayden, a famous American medium, arrived in the U.K. in the autumn of 1852. In the British press, Hayden was initially mocked and dismissed, but by the mid-1850s she was being visited by a number of influential clients who began to take her and her beliefs seriously. The press began covering the topic more favorably, and newspapers devoted explicitly to Spiritualism sprung up in London, including the British Spiritualist Telegraph and the Spiritual Times...

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