Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Goddess and the Thief - Essie Fox - Author guest post & review

I am delighted to share a guest blog post by author Essie Fox today, writing about her novel The Goddess and the Thief.  


The Goddess and the Thief is perhaps the most gothic of my three Victorian novels. It has ghosts, Hindu gods, a cursed diamond, and opiate-driven dreams – not to mention certain vampiric themes, some of which allude to stories in the original Penny Dreadfuls; such as that of Varney the Vampire, a rather a lurid precursor of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

But, as well as providing what I hope is an entertaining read, many of the novel’s dramatic scenes reference more serious issues by far – relating to loss and identity – to female subjugation – and also obsessive religious beliefs when (for whatever reasons), some people are driven to behave in ways that others would call insane. And yet, are they really deluded? Or, is it true, as Shakespeare wrote that, “There are more things in heaven and earth…than dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In The Goddess and The Thief, my narrator is Alice Willoughby, a young woman who is torn between two very different worlds – and very different philosophies – being born and raised in India for the first eight years of her life, and then coming to live in England.

In India, her beloved ayah fills her head with tales of the Hindu gods – particularly Shiva and Sati. Sati was the god’s first mortal wife, who died when she flung herself into the flames of a fire at a sacred festival to prove her devotion to the god. Sati is eventually reborn in the form of Parvati, the human child who later on becomes divine when Shiva takes her as his bride.

Alice never forgets these stories, and her opening words in the novel are: “Do you believe in other worlds, of lives ever after, of heavens on earth? My ayah did and from her lips there dripped such honeyed promises…”

But Mini’s ‘honeyed promises’ go on to become the foundation for many subsequent events that prove to be very far from sweet, when Alice’ is forced to leave her care – when her father, who is in the service of the British East India Company, fears for his daughter’s morality and travels with her to England, where he leaves her in the care of an aunt. But he could not be more mistaken. Aunt Mercy is not as respectable as Alice’s father believes her to be, but is actually involved in the trade of spiritualist mediums. And, whereas she is a fraud, Alice – though a reluctant recruit – proves to have genuine psychic skills. And then, when the two women are befriended by a man called Lucian Tilsbury (whose own experiences in India have led to certain obsessions that neither women at first perceives), the resulting affairs and deceptions lead Alice – and her jealous aunt – into a nightmare of abuse, and increasingly dangerous desires.

Alice is unwittingly involved in the theft of a diamond which has been brought to England as ransom at the end of the Second Anglo Sikh war. In reality this diamond is based upon the actual Koh-i-noor, still one of the crown jewels today and on view in the Tower of London.

In my novel, the Koh-i-noor appears as a symbol of mystical spiritualism, linked to magical events relating to the Hindu gods, being able to bless – or sometimes curse – all those who come into its light. And, on a more prosaic level, the diamond’s power also lies in the fact that it was once the sovereign symbol of Lahore, and all that has now been taken away from the glamorous Prince Duleep Singh – the boy maharajah who was deposed and whose story is absolutely true, and which, I have taken the liberty of weaving into my novel’s plot.

Duleep really did come to England where he lived a very privileged life as a favourite of Queen Victoria. And in later years he also wished to claim his diamond back again, and hoped to return to India to sit once again on his golden throne; only not in quite the dramatic way described in The Goddess and the Thief.

The novel is suffused in deceits and supernatural mysteries, amongst which the prince, and Alice too, must face the ghosts from their Indian pasts. And sometimes those ghosts are imaginary, and sometimes they are very real. But as one of the other characters says when she sees some broken shards of glass: ‘See the glisten of that…as bright as any precious jewel. You can never tell ...what’s true...what’s false.’

Well, I hope if you read The Goddess and the Thief that by the time the novel ends you will see what’s real and what is false concerning the tales of the diamond, and also regarding Alice’s past – and whether, as Tilsbury believes, her future lies in India, linked to those stories her Ayah once told about the sacred Hindu gods. And finally, with regard to Duleep, I hope you find some sympathy and see that the British Empire’s dream of conquest and trade in India could sometimes lead to sadness – when a boy torn between two different worlds might end up belonging nowhere.

* * *

Huge thanks to Essie for sharing her thoughts here!


My review

'Those years I lived in India, I think they were my paradise.'

As a little girl, Alice Willoughby lived with her father in India, raised by her dear ayah, Mini, who tells her stories about Hindu gods, in particular Shiva and Parvati. Alice is devastated when taken by her father from this home that she knows and loves, and brought to live in Windsor, supposedly for a moral upbringing, with her self-centred aunt Mercy, who unbeknownst to Alice's father is in fact a spiritualist medium. When she lived in India, Alice once saw the precious, priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond, which was taken from India and brought to England after the end of the second Anglo-Sikh war, and it is set to play a significant role in her life to come. One day a mysterious man named Lucian Tilsbury enters Alice and Mercy's lives, and a plot is put into motion regarding the diamond.

Alice finds herself under the control and whims of her aunt, made to play a role and not cared for lovingly as she had been in India: 'I was the puppet whose strings were pulled by the whims and desires of her aunt.'  She finds herself with little option but to help her Aunt with her activities as a medium despite her desire not to be a part of them. A moment I particularly enjoyed was when Mercy, who, despite her assertions, has no genuine abilities as a medium, witnesses the very real psychic abilities of Alice. 

The Goddess and the Thief is a beautifully written, intricate, gothic and dark Victorian novel weaving together so many intriguing layers, many that I knew little of before reading this story. I loved the descriptions of India and hearing the stories of the Hindu gods that Alice had been told, stories that I might have otherwise never come across. 

It feels as though Essie Fox writes with a real passion and fascination for her themes, and this comes across, it drew me in and aroused my interest. In fact, right from the first page, reading the letter from Alice's mother to her sister Mercy that was 'never sent', I was intrigued. I liked how Queen Victoria and her mourning were incorporated into the storyline. Another fascinating character brought into the tale is the Maharajah Duleep Singh, taken from his homeland to England, becoming Queen Victoria's 'beautiful boy'. The plot holds surprises and twists, and I found myself reading a little slower sometimes to make sure I fully digested what was happening, sometimes to pause and think about what had happened, and I had to ask myself sometimes if I things were real or imaginary. 

Alice's world whilst in India feels so rich and full of colour and joyous experiences, and her life in England seems by contrast to be constrained, bleak and grey, stifling her. At times I felt very sad for Alice at the situations she found herself in, very vulnerable, sometimes with little or no way out, being manipulated or controlled by others.

It's a read strong on atmosphere, plot, imagination and mystery, with characters driven by passion and obsession. I felt immersed in a different place, hearing tales of mysterious people, precious objects, of mythology, gods and spirits, and learning a little of colonialism. The story ended on a poignant note.  For me this was an unusual, clever and captivating tale by an author talented in successfully weaving so many facets of history and imagination together into her narratives. I don't know if I've done this story justice in my review but hopefully given a flavour of it and how I enjoyed it. Do read the afterword by the author that sheds more light on what you've just read.

I was lucky enough to read the lovely hardback edition of this novel, which is beautifully designed and textured. 

I received a copy of this novel for an honest review.

Published by Orion


  1. Great post.

    The book sounds like it covers such interesting themes. Well crafted characters and metaphysical musings are a great combination.

    I am reminded just a little bit of E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India."

  2. Such a beautiful book! I found this a bit too bleak and depressing, overall, but I agree that you get so much more from the story having read Essie Fox's afterword and also similar blog posts to this one that she has guest-written. It's obviously been impeccably researched.


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