There is an historical set of characters including some of the pre-Raphaelites and the poet Swinbourne. There's a fictional artist who seems to be based on Richard Dadd. There's two generations of artists named Comstock and several bohemian types in the present day, including one writing a history of the Tristan and Iseult legend in all its incarnations through history. Behind it all there is a mysterious woman who functions as model, muse and predator for generations of artists.
There is a density of literary and historical reference here that ensures I missed a fair amount, but I got enough to realize that it doesn't entirely matter. Hand's prose and command of character motivation and structure make it compelling. The references I got only enhanced my enjoyment and sent me on several google dives to catch myself up on some things. The books that I found myself thinking of most while reading it were The Course of the Heart by John Harrison, mainly in mood and theme, and with The Stress of Her Regard/Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, his take on murderous muses and how that drives art. But as much as I love those books, I think I like this one more.
Hand proves over and over she's a master in every genre she works in. This is a profound meditation on mortality and art. It's an equally exciting story with a climax that I absolutely did not see coming. It's horror and fantasy and capital L literature. I don't think it's recency bias to say this is among her best if it's not her actual best. I realized last year while reading one of her story collections she is my favorite living writer, and this only reconfirms that. I'll be returning to this many times, I suspect.
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