From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. On a stormy night at Lord Byron's Swiss villa, Mary Shelley challenged her host, her husband and herself to write a ghost story. Mary's, of course, became Frankenstein. Byron supposedly soon gave up his—but, Crowley asks, what if he didn't? The result is this brilliant gothic novel of manners enclosed in two frames. In one, Byron's manuscript comes into the hands of Ada, his daughter by his estranged wife. Ada, in reality, became famous as a proto-cyberneticist, having collaborated on mathematician Charles Babbage's "difference engine." In Crowley's novel, Ada ciphers Byron's work into a kind of code in order to keep it from her mother. The second frame consists of the contemporary discovery of Ada's notes on Byron's story by Alexandra Novak, who's researching Ada for a Web site dedicated to the history of women in science. Alex is, a little too conveniently (this novel's one structural flaw), the estranged daughter of a Byron scholar and filmmaker; her interest in Ada dovetails with her father's interest in Byron, and she's fascinated by the notes and the code both. By applying Byron's scintillating epistolary style to the novel he should have written, Crowley creates a pseudo-Byronic masterpiece. The plot follows Ali, the bastard son of Lord "Satan" Sane and an unfortunate minor wife of a minor Albanian "Bey." Sane finds and takes the boy, aged 12, back to Regency England. Ali's life is filled with gothic events, from the murder of his father (of which he is accused) to his escape from England with the help of a "zombi," the fortuitous and critical aid he gives the English army at the Battle of Salamanca and his love affair with a married woman. The myth of Byron's lost papers has a catalyzing effect on American literary genius, giving us James's Aspern Papers and now Crowley's best novel.
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Did Byron leave behind a novel? That's the premise of this one, which posits that the manuscript ended up in the hands of his brilliant daughter, Ada. Around 150 years later, Ada's notes on the text, a tantalizing single page of the manuscript, and several pages of numbers are discovered by another brainy daughter, Alexandra Novak, an American who is in London researching the lives of British women of science for a Web site called Strong Woman Story. Alexandra (or Smith, as she is called) enlists the help of her lover Thea, a mathematician, and her estranged father, Lee, once a professor of Byron studies, to unravel the mystery of the novel, which Ada claimed was destroyed. Crowley's use of three different devices--Byron's work, a convincing piece of romantic fiction rich with thinly disguised autobiographical elements; Ada's annotations; and a series of e-mails exchanged in the present day--adds up to an intriguing and multilayered whole. This book should appeal to fans of another literary mystery, A. S. Byatt's Possession (1991). Mary Ellen Quinn
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