Gordon Dahlquist opens Vol 1. with Miss Temple having been dumped by her fiance. Now, this should ordinarily scare away any reader, but as it happens, there is something about the title of the book(s) which gives one pause before dismissing this outright.
Also, consider that within the first page we are given Miss Temple's reaction to the breakup, but also a little, less-than-flattering tidbit about her: "The manner of dismissal she barely noticed - indeed, it was just how she would have done such a thing (as in fact, she had, on multiple galling occasions)- but the fact of it was stinging."
We are given scrumptious details about her breakfast and the little relationship before its end, and Dahlquist is all about the details. He notes the food she's eating, how she eats it, the furnishings, the nervous gazes of aunt and maids, everything.
Because Miss Temple is not the kind to just weep, and because she is, ultimately, petty and prideful, she sets off to find out why her fiance has dumped her. Thus starts her adventures. Or misadventures, I should say.
From the start, we are shown what Miss Temple does which sends her hurtling headlong into a dangerous situation which she might never have been aware of, if it hadn't been for her petty pride. She follows her ex-fiance out to the countryside, rides with strangers, pretends to mingle, and causes shenanigans.
Within this first part, she has hitched a ride, trampled through backrooms, stripped of her clothes, and almost raped. I'm not too pleased with the rape scene, although it was gruesomely portrayed and she wins, with an "all-weather pencil", no less. I don't know what it is but it sounds awesome.
Dahlquist has structured both books very tightly: first, Miss Temple, who meets Cardinal Chang in a train on the way home from her misadventure in the boonies. Then, a shift to Cardinal Chang's perspective, and what he was doing out in the boonies, too, and his further misadventures, where he meets Doctor Svenson. The next part is, of course, Doctor Svenson and his side of the story. Halfway through the book, the fateful meeting where they collide with each other, and Cardinal Chang says, "No blood. No princes. Shall we send for tea?" One and a half pages later, Miss Temple follows up, "Were you in earnest about the tea? I should like some very much. It is always best when discussing serious matters to do so around a teapot." The second book also presents itself similarly, showing all three sides of the story before converging into the three of them (now four!) coming together for a final showdown.
There is so much detail, both in description and plot, that even with the three of them meeting to discuss what they have seen, they still cannot reconcile all the stories to create the larger story. The reader is then compelled to read further to find out more, and how the twists and turns affect our heroes. And what a plot! It involves alchemy and magic stuff, and science and tubes and metaphysical nonsense I don't even want to know about. But the loving detail that goes into it all is brilliant. There is a lot of violence (obviously) and plenty of (very) lurid descriptions.
The language is another key thing I want to point out - you can tell this authour loves words. Loves them. Many words, with multiple syllables, even though probably no one actually can say them without getting out of breath but they are still such a pleasure to read. Much abuse of the word "and" (like myself, really), and I do not recommend this book for Hemmingway fans. The sentences are long and not easily parsed, and the language is rich. It's like reading Dickens but better.
The characters, oh man, the characters, where do we begin? Let's start with the antagonists - all scary people with perfectly believable motivations of greed and lust and power. All tragically bound up by their assumptions of their impermeable positions, and each of them having their own little plot twists. Even then, each antagonist, from the Contessa to the Comte, to Miss Temple's ex to the German prince, to the whores they pick up to serve them through the Process - each of them are creepy, and alternately pathetic. The more one finds out of them, the more one wants to dislike them, and the less capable of it one is.
Doctor Svenson starts off the most sympathetic character of them all - a spy sent to keep an eye on an idiot prince, who has to fumble with the prince's fumbling. He's had his personal tragedy, he's scared of heights, and he loves smoking. He's also the most formal, and most polite of all the three heroes. A doctor-surgeon, he sounds pretty fucking capable, when he's not being sentimental about his personal tragedy (which actually has relevance to the plot in the second book!). There is some business of his falling for a woman towards the end of the first half, who becomes part of their team, although she plays a lesser roles. I'm still not sure what I think of that.
Cardinal Chang is our Gritty Anti-Hero - an assassin for hire, a generally violent fellow, although not wholly unpleasant; after all, the first time Miss Temple sees him, he's reading poetry. Go figure. I was very disappointed to find that Chang was not, as one might suppose from the name, Chinese, but that his eyes have been slashed before, making them slitted, like a Chinese's eyes. As a result, he wears dark glasses, adding to his mysterious profile (and admitedly, looks pretty hawt on the cover of Vol 2). Disappointment aside, I was pleasantly surprised to see his character development go from cold-hearted, practical killer to someone who, while still maintaining his Bad-Assery, has feelings, expressing concern for his new companions.
Miss Celestial Temple - we don't find out that's her full name until halfway through the first book, when she invites her new compatriots to call her by it - is an island girl, from the tropics, and thus not disposed to the societal niceties that she ought to be held by. She recovers from her shock of finding her ex embroiled in some crazy scheme quite nicely, and rather than play helpless heroine, she takes action and gets pissed off. And does she ever! And Miss Temple is underestimated everywhere - thought a whore by the people she runs into in her first adventure, thought petty by her ex-fiance, and generally all-round assumed to be no threat.
I find Miss Temple's character to be most compelling, of course, seeing as she's one of the few great female characters I've come across lately. Miss Temple, although impulsive, acts, and fights against any attempts to strip her of agency. Her feelings are complicated - she doesn't love her ex anymore, but she's still worried about him, that idiot. She's mad at him for dumping her, but she's always hurt at the rejection, and wants to know why. Maybe because I've been there before, but I couldn't bring myself to be irritated at her - she was too real. At points, she was too much to be real: the vicious reaction to being raped, the collectedness after all she's been through, the ingenuity of her ideas - these were too much to be real, and yet - these are what I think ordinary women wish they would have in Miss Temple's situation. Miss Temple is almost like a wish fulfilment fantasy come true. (All the more remarkable that it was written by a man.) And of course, she starts things off again when in Vol. 1, slightly more than upset (she cries! oh, our sympathetic heroine), she splits off from Chang and Svenson to try to find things out on her own. So petty! So immature! Yet, it's that same kind of bravado I wish I had, and I just couldn't fault her for it.
And of course, the attendant baggage of being a woman - while arguably all the women involved are women of agency, each of them with their own stories, the specific things done to them, happening to them, are obviously occurring because they are women: Miss Temple's rape (and subsequent molestation), the Comte's experiment on Lydia Vandariff, and the transformations of the three women. There is similar sexual sway held over a few of the male characters as well, but none of them described quite as grotesquely as what happens to Miss Temple.
But for all that happens to them, it's luck, or the way events happen, or just force of will, but all three characters survive. Not only that, but they regroup, and even though they're exhausted, worn out, hungry, mind-fucked, they still have the presence of mind to keep their wits, and they bust out. And somehow it does not seem contrived at all.
And then there is a bit of a surprise ending (moar plot twists! huzzah!) and everything goes to shit. However! Our four remarkable characters are still alive, and there is still one more book to go! I must get it. Well, clearly, you know, after all the villains are defeated, there is that business of unravelling all their shenanigans. And of course, I am very hopeful that Chang and Miss Temple hook up...