The Spirit Bares Its Teeth by Andrew Joseph White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This medical horror/ghost story covers a period in British history (the Victorian era) that was frankly terrible. There was rampant misogyny, sexism, and medical experimentation, according to the foreward/afterward:
The Spirit Bares Its Teeth was inspired by Victorian England's sordid history of labeling certain people "ill" or "other" to justify cruelty against them. Threats of violence enforced strict social norms, often targeting women, queer and disabled people, and other marginalized folks.
While terrible things were done to all kinds of people deemed "unfit" by Victorian society, when it comes to medical experimentation, so much of that pain and hurt was inflicted on racial minorities in particular, and it would be incorrect not to acknowledge that.
This book has a content warning before you start, and it needs one. There is a lot of medical/surgical/supernatural gore in this story, so if you're sensitive to that kind of thing, it's better to skip this book. (This was also the case with the author's previous novel,
Hell Followed With Us,
but I found both books to be worth reading despite this.)
The protagonist here is Silas/Gloria Bell, the trans son of a family who is trying to marry him off against his will (as was done in those days). This alternate history postulates that sixty years previously, the Veil between the realm of the living and the dead thinned to the point where it could be seen and opened by certain people: men and women born with violet eyes. The Royal Speaker Society has taken control of these people and their powers, and women have been banned from doing spirit-work altogether (as soon as they were found to be superior at the job, a law was passed by Parliament to restrict it to men only). But violet-eyed daughters are highly prized by the Society for breeding further Speakers (yeah, Victorian England was just a nasty-ass place), and as our story opens, Silas is attending his brother's wedding and being informed by his parents that he will soon be engaged as well.
Silas/Gloria is autistic, and this seems to be an accurate and sensitive characterization. He has trouble interacting with people, but has a razor-sharp mind when it comes to solving problems and performing surgery (which he has been teaching himself, dissecting various deceased farm animals; he has also been aided and educated in medicine by his older brother George). (This is also where the content warnings come in, as Silas performs surgeries on various characters, including a Caesarian section/abortion on a young woman who has been raped.) He tries to run away to escape his fate, but is caught and sent to Braxton's Finishing School and Sanitorium, a horrorshow of a place for people like him deemed "Veil-sick" (actually, anybody rebelling against the suffocating societal norms and the Royal Speaker Society's rules). There he will be "cured" and trained to be an obedient wife.
The mystery and horror of the plot is what is happening at Braxton's to people like Silas. He meets the person his parents were trying to force him to marry, only to discover this person is trans like himself; her name is Daphne. They end up falling for each other. This relationship feels really sudden and a bit forced, which is the only nitpick I have about the book; but at the same time, I can understand Silas's surprise and elation and finding someone like him. There are also scenes of physical torture (strangling) at the hands of the Braxton Headmaster, who is trying to force Silas's masculinity out of him.
The last third of the book gets more into the horror/ghost story, but the real horror lies in the misogynist and repressive people around Silas. He and Daphne do manage to make their escape, however, and bring down the Braxton school and its terrible Headmaster. This is a harrowing story in spots, but it speaks to people learning to accept who they are and fighting for their right to exist as themselves. That is a universal theme, and unfortunately it is even more applicable to the world today.
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