I don’t know how it happened, but Madeleine Holly-Rosing’s “Boston Metaphysical Society” escaped my notice until quite recently. It began in 2013 as a series of graphic novels. Her recent prose adaptation, “Boston Metaphysical Society: Storm of Secrets”, was published just this year.
The story takes place in an alternate history in which powerful families called “Great Houses” dominate the USA both economically and politically, The social structure is reminiscent of the dynasties of Renaissance Italy or feudal Japan. To reflect this situation, the country’s name has been changed to the “Great States of America.”
“Storm of Secrets” features young Elizabeth, heir to the aristocratic House Weldsmore of Boston. Her recent marriage to Samuel Hunter, her former bodyguard, has caused a stir in high-society circles. Great House ladies simply do not marry men from outside their social class. Elizabeth is the strong, independent type who doesn’t care for convention, but her choices cause her widowed father Jonathan much aggravation.
Samuel is no social climber; he married Elizabeth for love and insists on the couple’s independence. He refuses an offer of employment by her father, choosing instead to start his own detective agency. Their new life together faces additional challenges. Elizabeth is subject to visions which give her frightening glimpses into the future. Secondly, as heir to a Great House, she risks kidnapping or assassination by rival Great Houses. In this reality, the War Between the States was instead fought between these clans, and is known as the “House Wars.”
As the novel opens, Elizabeth and Samuel have returned to Boston from an extended honeymoon in Europe. She’s had a reprieve from her terrifying visions, giving the couple hope the problem has passed. Yet the visions return, occurring more frequently than before. Samuel insists that she visit Rachel Callahan, a famous medium from the Irish underclass, whom he believes can help her learn to control her unwanted gift. Jonathan objects, viewing mediums and their spirituality as superstitious frauds. Furthermore, venturing into these poverty-stricken areas is dangerous, particularly because rival Great Houses may send agents there to target her.
A parallel plot thread brings in Great House politics. The Weldsmores are world renowned ship-builders with plans to expand their operations outside America. Their Chicago-based rivals the Tillenghasts have a near-monopoly on airship production and want the Weldsmores to join them in taking control of shipping worldwide. Jonathan’s brother Hal has married into this House, which sends him to visit Boston on a thinly disguised mission of espionage.
The novel proceeds a bit slowly at first. Holly-Rosing makes extensive descriptions of the characters and their dress and surroundings. These add to the book’s steampunk flavor with fashion elements such as the upper-class fashion of sewing metallic threads into their clothing. The costliness of the material (copper, silver, gold) indicates the wealth of the wearer. As the chapters progress, however, the long descriptions give way to action, intrigue, and well-developed characters, such the Weldsmore’s “house manager” Sampson, the Irish medium Rachel, and the African-American airship engineer Thomas Rochester. I must admit that the book’s ending took me by surprise, which is not an easy task.
In short, Boston Metaphysical Society: Storm of Secrets was a welcome surprise. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t appear on lists of outstanding steampunk books. This may reflect a bias against graphic novels, but with this prose edition, I hope that list-makers will remedy this oversight. For an imaginative setting and memorable characters, and adjusting for a somewhat slow start, I give it a score of 4.5 out of 5 gears.