THE HAND OF GLORY
by Sophie Masson
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Sophie Masson's novel The Hand of Glory is set in Australia in 1854 at the height of the Australian gold rush. Masson's Australia, however, is not the same as the one which exists in our own world. Rather than being a completely British Colony, the French have developed the Southwestern portion of Australia into the colony of Esperance. Into this world comes Sylvia Hoveden, a young British girl who has come to Australia to discover what has happened to her twin brother, Felix, and Anje Otsoa, a Basque who personal vendetta against his parents' killer has placed him in the service of the governor of Esperance.
While Masson does a wonderful job depicting mid-century Australia, it isn't clear that she needed to introduce the colony of Esperance into the equation. The story could have been told just as well as a novel set in our own historical continuum. That noted, there are some behaviors and attitudes which arise which do not seem to be entirely consistent with the social mores the characters were raised in, but which can be explained away by the slight historical deviance. Nevertheless, the change in history is so slight that these social gaffes jar the reader from the story, no matter how briefly.
Sylvia and Anje meet up relatively early in the novel, but their relationship is one almost more of conflict than cooperation. Sylvia refuses to accept that Anje is one of the good guys, even as she comes to accept his friends once she reaches the gold-mining town of Aurifer. While Sylvia is on the trail of her brother's disappearance, Anje is focused on the kidnapping of the Count of Tremille, who was visiting Melbourne in the British colony. Both characters are convinced that their quests are related, but Sylvia doesn't trust Anje to be on her side when she really needs him.
The novel is written in such a manner that there is little tension concerning either Sylvia or Anje's quest, the former of which takes precedence. Sylvia, and the reader, are both convinced that Felix is still alive and needs her help, even as evidence mounts in Aurifer to indicate that he was murdered. Other aspects of the mystery, however, do nag at the reader, specifically because Masson appears to ignore them. Of these, the most notable is the identity of the mysterious Mr. Redding who hires the Melbourne street ruffian Mickey O'Brien to attempt to kidnap Sylvia upon her arrival in Melbourne.
The Hand of Glory is billed as "juvenile fiction," however it is enjoyable for anyone and is neither simplistic nor juvenile in the writing or the story. Masson creates an interesting world which is similar, but removed, from the gold rush of the United States a few years earlier to retain an exotic nature. Her Australia is a frontier town, and if the native culture only makes a token appearance, that helps build the reality of the book.
Masson has chosen to include a minor supernatural element in the story, but she has successfully understated it so it does not strain the bounds of credulity or firmly move The Hand of Glory into the realm of the fantastic. Instead, it plays with folk magic from several different cultures with results consistent with both those believes and the societies in which they were practiced.
Although The Hand of Glory doesn't completely work as mystery, alternate history, or fantasy, it is an enjoyable book which appears to work in spite of itself. The characters are appealing and the setting a mixture of the familiar and the exotic in a way which welcomes the readers to find out what Masson has planned for it.