Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mystifying Masquerade


The Phantom’s Apprentice by Heather Webb


In Heather Webb’s latest novel, she re-envisions the famous story of The Phantom of the Opera, best known as the powerful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. In this book, Webb puts Christine DaaĆ© more firmly at the center of the story, with a newly invented back story that reaches into Christine’s childhood to answer questions that the original French novelist Gaston Leroux left unanswered. The story, of course, is about a troubled man who falls in love with a young soprano and the lengths he will go to make her into the Paris Opera's brightest star.



First, I should quickly mention that while I loved this book, it isn’t absolutely perfect. There were a few instances where I felt that the words or language that Webb used didn’t fit the period of the novel precisely (meaning, the 1860s). These instances, however, were so very few and far between, that they didn’t distract from the book for more than an instant, and they weren’t severe enough for me to reduce my rating of this book. Despite this tiny niggle, I believe Webb succeeded in instilling a very somber, yet elegant tone to the atmosphere here with her prose. In fact, I feel Webb’s style of prose was so effective that there were times when I could almost hear some of Lloyd Webber’s haunting melodies going through my mind while I read (and maybe Webb did too).

What I really loved about this book was the things that Webb introduced here that hadn’t appeared in other versions (that I know of). To begin with, despite what seems like an initially frail character, Webb develops Christine carefully throughout the novel, into someone who slowly discovers that she has an inner strength that borders on being fierce. In fact, this is probably the most powerful part of Webb’s novel. To do this, Webb brings us back to Christine’s childhood, and her early life. This allowed Webb to invent Christine’s early friendship with Raoul, the Viscount of Chagny, and expound on that relationship (something I never understood from the musical). This, combined with the surprise ending, gives us a character that we not only love, but also admire for her ability to become something more than what the society of the time expected of her. One could almost say that this is a historical fiction, coming-of-age story.

This meant that Webb also needed to develop Erik, the phantom himself, in this novel, for without a convincing antagonist, there is no heroic side to the protagonist. I truly appreciated how Webb infused Erik with more than just being an evil, deformed creature. Webb’s phantom is terribly charming both despite and because of his cruel streak, but he’s also a very troubled person. Webb gives him far more motivation for his actions than those familiar with the previous sources ever revealed, and with that cames a level of empathy that allows us to believe that Christine could care for him, through her fear, while at the same time hating him, despite understanding why he is so hateful.

Together with this, Webb also expands on all the rest of the original cast of characters. Each of these minor figures have an important role to play in the story, and Webb weaves their stories into Erik and Christine’s. Webb also seems to have included a new character, a man by the name of Delacroix, whose involvement in Christine’s life is motivated on the one hand, by his long-time devotion to Christine’s guardian Mme. Valerius, and on the other hand, his apparent academic studies to disprove that conjurors can really contact the dead and the spirit world. The addition of Delacroix adds extra twists to the story, while also injecting the elements of magicians, magic and their illusions. These connect well with how Erik succeeds in presenting himself to the Paris Opera as a ghost.

In short, all of this made for a lusciously well-crafted story that echoes with intrigue and mystery, harmonizes with music, and sparkles with magic. Webb’s character development works expertly with her plot twists, to give us a novel that is simply enthralling and enchanting. For all this, I am enthusiastically recommending this book with a full five stars (although to be honest, if I rated books on a scale of ten stars, this would get nine and a half, because of those tiny slips in language that I mentioned at the beginning of this review).

(PS: Via the Gutenberg Project, you can download a free copy of the English translation of Gaston Leroux’s novel “The Phantom of the Opera” here.)




Sonnet Press will release “The Phantom’s Apprentice” by Heather Webb on February 8, 2018. This book is/will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo eBooks, Kobo Audio Books, eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for providing me with an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.