The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal

Isn’t the cover pretty on this book? Well, don’t be fooled, it’s really Dickensian and dark.

Iris dreams of learning how to paint, but spends her days with her twin sister Rose making dolls. Not just any dolls, but dolls that often look like people’s dead children in a store in Victorian London that is run by a crazy woman who is a little too into her laudanum. And Rose, who was the beautiful sister but has been scarred by small pox, resents her sister.

Iris breaks the mould set out for her life by society and by her parents, when she agrees to work as an artists model for Louis Frost, a young up- and -coming painter, on the condition that he teach her how to paint. But unknown to her, a man called Silas has also noticed her. A man with a strange and dark past and a dream of making a museum of taxidermy….

I have to say, so often when I read novels set in this era, where women had little power in society and very few options, the women always seem to be breaking the mould and doing daring things. When you read novels written at the time or when you read about the history of the era, you realise that this kind of behaviour would likely have led them to being sent to a mental asylum or something equally appalling. It makes me wonder why people write about this era if they want to write about a thoroughly modern heroine.

But put that aside, and you have a really dark and mysterious tale to sink into. Silas is really creepy and awful and slimey, and I love the way he sees himself as being the good guy, a man with big dreams. He moves through fog and cobbled streets, and gives people the willies even while they brush him off as harmless.

The London of this novel is nicely drawn. It felt like a world that Dickens or Wilkie Collins would recognise and it explores the world of urchins surviving on the street, of shop keepers and girls who work there, as well as the bright and exciting lives of the artists of the era and their new ideas. I really enjoyed sinking into this dark and murky world, and seeing whether Iris would fall or rise and what Silas plans were.

It’s the kind of book that is kind of delicious. It’s got some dark threads running through it, it’s got a backdrop of an interesting time and place in history, it has a little romance and some crime. I think there are flaws in this book that might annoy some people, but I think if you know that it’s meant to be dark, mysterious, a bit romantic, you can let go of that and just enjoy it. I enjoyed it.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say too much, but I did feel like the ending dragged slightly, and then was suddenly and abruptly done and dusted. I don’t think it would have been that simple in reality. But that said, I think if you like books set in historic London, and you like that darkness that always creeps into these stories, then you’ll enjoy reading this book.

Read It If: a bit of romance, a bit of history, and a thread of darkness and crime run through this book. It’s not perfect, but if you like books set in this era or crime stories, make a cup of tea and some scones and curl up with this one on a rainy afternoon.

Thank you Simon & Schuster for sending me the ARC of this book for review. As you can probably tell, all opinions are my own and honest.

The Doll Factory is out August 13th.

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