Rossamund’s life so far has been far from extraordinary. Not only does he have a girl’s name, but he was dropped off as an infant at a Foundlingery, to be raised as amongst the orphanages. Not all is bad. He is unpopular with his peers, but some of the staff have taken a shine to him. So it is with mixed reactions that he learns he is to be sent off into the world, to be a Lamplighter for the Empire. He’s glad to be out of the Foundlingery, but also disappointed: he’d hoped to be a sailor on the vinegar seas, fighting monsters.
But life as a lamplighter might not be as boring as Rossamund initially thought. Just his trip to get to the lamplighter institution is an adventure in itself. People he meets along the way are strange, such as the lightning-wielding, extremely mercurial Europe, whose powers stem from implanted organs that put her in constant danger of death if she does not drink regular potions. Others, such as Rivermaster Poundinch – who may or may not be dealing in the Dark Trades – seem friendly at first, but soon show another side. It is hard for Rossamund to know who to trust … especially when his first encounters with the feared and hated monsters leaves him wondering if, just perhaps, the monsters are not so bad after all.
This is the first book in a series. It would be fairly obvious, even if there wasn’t a prominent “BOOK 1” on the cover, because the feel of the book is very much of setting up the story and introducing characters, concepts, and the world itself. The setting is incredibly detailed: there are more than a hundred pages in the back of the already quite-long book devoted entirely to a glossary and “explicarium” of the world. Author D. M. Cornish (who also provided the detailed illustrations) spent more than a decade working on the world, its customs, and inhabitants, and it shows. There is a sense of a larger structure and bigger picture going on outside of Rossamund’s story that can sometimes be lacking in fantasy novels.
While the story gets off to a bit of a slow start (partly because Rossamund is hesitant to act, obviously an area where the author is giving the character room to grow) it is soon rolling along, filled with action and adventure – and the underlying question, posed by the oft-time frightening Europe, of where exactly it is that adventure ends and violence begins.