Gigi Pandian: Under Lock and Skeleton Key

This first novel in a new series from Gigi Pandian is so rich, so stuffed with character, plot and setting, it takes a moment to absorb everything the intelligent Pandian is throwing at you.  She expects you, the reader, to hit the ground running.  Her main character, Tempest Raj, is a magician and illusionist whose career has been crushed by a spectacular failure onstage in Las Vegas, and she’s back home reconsidering her life.

She’s from a family of magicians and illusionists, and there’s a longstanding family curse: the eldest child dies by magic.  Tempest has lost a string of relatives, most recently her beloved aunt and her mother (who were known as “The Selkie Sisters”), and Tempest’s grandparents and her father are extra careful of her as they don’t want her to be next.

Her father runs a company called Secret Staircase Construction – they add witty hidden rooms and staircases at the request of a homeowner.  At the moment they are working on an old Victorian recently acquired by a man and his young son.  The day Tempest visits the construction site, a dead body – resembling Tempest – comes tumbling out of the wall.  It’s not Tempest, of course, but her former, lookalike assistant, and the discovery of her body leads to many, many questions.

While this book is at once an almost fey look at the tricks and secret construction of the houses her father works on as well as her own family homestead, Hidden Creek, it’s also a peeling back of the layers of Tempest’s backstory.  As the story proceeds, the reader is given more information, and the details of the loss of Tempest’s mother as well as the crashing of Tempest’s career become more clear and more and more fascinating.

However, this book is also a loving homage to the locked room mystery – Pandian specifically references John Dickson Carr’s classic, The Three Coffins, as well as detailing Carr’s explanations for a seemingly impossible discovery of a body in a locked room.  The body that falls out of the wall should not have fallen out of walls that were basically untouched and sound but somehow – it did.  Tempest uses her smarts and a little bit of magical misdirection to get to a solution.

Tempest is truly a wonderful creation.  She’s young, she’s figuring out her life (always a good thing at the start of a series), she’s an illusionist who bases her illusions on the telling of stories, and she’s surrounded by interesting people.  Her family, an odd combination of Scots and Indian (there are some great mash up recipes at the back of the book), is an even richer creation.  The whole thing is fertile soil for a long and interesting series.  I loved her nod to and reverence for the classics – not a shallow love on her part, but a deep one – it held my interest and made me appreciate this odd and precious book all the more.