Title: The Fine Point of His Soul
Author: Julie Bozza
Cover art: Agnieszka A. Kowalska
Buy link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Length: Novel/51,723 words/ 166 PDF pages
Genre: Speculative fiction/Alternate history/Mystery/GLBT
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
A review by LadyM
Note: This is not a romance, but literary fiction. While there are some GLBT themes in the book, they are very much secondary.
Review summary: A mystery of the last months of John Keats’s life whose greatest strength is the characters.
Blurb: He was the shameful cause of his sister Elena’s death and he stole state papers from England, yet Adrian Hart is feted by the best of society in Rome, and boldly dubs himself ‘Iago’. Determined to avenge Elena, his unrequited love, Lieutenant Andrew Sullivan asks the advice of poet and Shakespearian John Keats, and his artist friend Severn. Soon Percy and Mary Shelley join them, then Lord Byron and his servant Fletcher. But how can the seven of them work against this man, when they can’t even agree what he is? The atheist Shelley insists that Hart is an ordinary man, while Byron becomes convinced he’s the Devil incarnate, and Keats flirts with the idea that he’s Dionysius…
As death and despair follow in Hart’s wake, Sullivan knows he must do something to stop Hart before even Sullivan himself succumbs – but what…?
One of the things I love about Julie Bozza’s writing is the fact that she can change her writing style from book to book to fit their tone and theme. Whether it’s a gritty police procedural, beautiful love story set in Australian Outback or, in this case, speculative fiction set in alternate 1820s, she wields the chosen style with ease and brings to life an amazing cast of characters. And here, in The Fine Point of His Soul, the style beautifully matches story’s characters, especially the three most famous among them, romantic poets John Keats, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, their heightened emotions, doubts, fancies, loves and losses, pathos.
Set in the last few moths of John Keats’s life, the story is told in first-person point of view by Lieutenant Andrew Sullivan, sent on the mission by his superior to stop Adrian Hart, the man who caused the death of man’s wife and stole some state papers from their home. Sullivan accidentally gets trapped on the quarantined ship in the Bay of Naples, where he befriends poet John Keats and his friend, painter Joseph Severn. After their release, Sullivan joins the two men on their trip to Rome where Hart escaped and where Keats hopes to improve his health. There, they are joined by Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and his manservant William Fletcher, who all get involved in the mystery of “Iago”.
One of the interesting choices the author made was the fact that Hart doesn’t really appear on page until the last quarter of the book. He is observed by others from afar and, while they all have encounters with him, the reader doesn’t see most of them. What we do see are the consequences: Severn looses his ability to paint and falls into deep depression, Keats revels in intoxication, Byron becomes completely enchanted by the beautiful man, etc. Their experiences are different and so are their opinions of him. Is he simply a man, an evil man, or devil incarnate? The author leaves that choice to us, which will not be satisfying to every reader.
In the end, Adrian Hart is just a tool, a catalyst for the characters’ self-examination. And, the characters are certainly the most interesting part of this book. Whether it’s Andrew Sullivan, faithful, courageous officer, desperately in love with his superior’s wife, Mary Shelley, kind, gentle woman of reason and learning, Fletcher, Byron’s steadfast manservant and friend or John Keats, lively young man even in his illness, great friend, kind soul and the heart of this story, they pull you in and don’t let you go until the very end. They are far from perfect: sometimes selfish, often obstinate. While their intellectual, poetic discussions on art, soul and death fascinate, their ineffectuality will also exasperate the reader. When they finally take action, they triumph and break your heart.
Bozza’s portrayal of Keats warmed my heart, but I fell head over heels with Byron (though I suspect every reader will have their own favorite). He is a proud man, sometimes hard, unreliable and insecure. He sees himself as a man of action, but the gentleman and lord in him always win. His character gave us two of the most beautiful scenes in the novel: his courting of Keats and a love scene with Hart that shook up even scandalized Sullivan.
The Fine Point of His Soul isn’t a perfect novel. It would benefit from some tighter editing and even some clarity. However, the fine points – pun intended – of the novel far outweigh its flaws. In Keats’s own words: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”