Rich in detail and texture, The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe is bursting with history, mysticism and adventure that transport the reader across the globe and through time, from 1860s Shanghai to early 1900s Boston, onto the opulent decks of the Titanic and to the deep trenches of WWI. While wrapping the reader in a story thick with wonder a solid theme shines through: regardless of what fate has waiting for us, the choices we make in our lives ultimately determines the person we become.
Sybil Allston’s life is far from the one she envisioned having. At twenty-seven she is unmarried and running her family’s home in Boston after her mother and younger sister died aboard the Titanic two years before. Her floundering brother Harlan has just moved back home with his lover, an actress named Dovie, after being expelled from Harvard and her father is distant and disapproving. As Sybil works to put her family back together the man she once hoped to marry, Benton Derby, reenters her life, set to assist her in helping Harlan get back on track.
As Sybil works to realign her family she also seeks to reconnect with her mother and sister through séances, looking to comfort her grief and find reassurance in her new role. When Dovie learns of Sybil’s spiritualist activities she takes her to an opium den and it is under this drug’s influence that Sybil begins to see impossible things in a scrying glass. She believes that what she’s seeing is the Titanic before the disaster, and continues down the duel tunnel of discovery and addiction, trying to not only lay to rest what happened to her mother and sister aboard the ill-fated ship but to also make sense of the events and uncertainties swirling around her.
As Sybil seeks her answers her visions begin to change and she is unsure what to make of them, especially when she realizes she is witnessing future events instead of the past. Should she believe Benton that her visions are nothing more than a sinister side effect of her new, dangerous addiction? Or should she trust what she is seeing is real? When she suddenly sees horrifying images of Harlan in her glass she is more confused than ever as to what to do with this knowledge. Should she try and change her brother’s future or let him make his own choices? And what choices will she make for her own life, one that might now contain Benton Derby?
As all the uncertainty spins around her she finds she has more in common with her quiet father – a man who made his fortune on the high seas and has more secrets in his past that he has let on – than she could have ever imagined and she must ultimately learn that everyone must make their own paths in life.
My limited abilities cannot possibly do justice to the wonderment that is The House of Velvet and Glass. This is by far my favorite read of the year to date. It has something for everyone: history, romance, mysticism, adventure, characters bursting to create their own lives as well as those finally laying old ghosts to rest. I thoroughly enjoyed how Katherine Howe not only gave us the central story of Sybil and her family but also Sybil’s father’s backstory in Shanghai as well as her mother and sister’s point of view aboard the Titanic. The story highlights how important it is to live in the present as opposed to being bogged down in the past or what might happen in the future. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read!
Also by Katherine Howe: The Physick Book of Deliverance
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Voice. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.