Sci-fi as written by Anthony Trollope? The Palliser novels as imagined by Ray Bradbury? Well, the only easy generalization about Jordan L. Hawk’s remarkable Whyborne & Griffin series is that Widdershins holds onto its own.
For her epic paranormal romance novels Ms. Hawk has created a fictional seaport city north of Boston called Widdershins. Founded in the 17th century by a group of men fleeing the witch trials in Salem, Widdershins is outwardly a typical thriving industrial city at the turn of the 20th century. But everyone outside of Widdershins knows that something is strange about the city. People who grow up there may leave, but they always come back. Something about the town won’t let them go. At the series’ center are the two characters of Griffin Flaherty and Percival Endicott Whyborne. Griffin is an ex-Pinkerton detective, cut loose after a mental breakdown, who comes to Widdershins in the eponymous first book, seeking to set up as a private detective. There he meets Percival Whyborne, the tall, pale-eyed, painfully shy Curator of Philology at the Ladysmith Museum. One thing about Whyborne that fascinates Griffin is that, while he is a son of the richest family in Widdershins, heir to vast railroad and industrial fortunes, he shuns his family and insists on living in a small flat on his modest curatorial salary. Moreover, there is a passionate streak inside Whyborne, hidden beneath a veneer of diffidence and social propriety. As Griffin gets caught up in an increasingly bizarre mystery involving Percival, he not only finds himself tapping into Whyborne’s unacknowledged magical skills, but into his long-suppressed passion as well.
At times over-the-top in its bizarre paranormal shenanigans, the Whyborne & Griffin series anchors the reader in the evolving connection between these two brilliant, damaged men. Beset from all sides by murder and sorcery, Griffin and Percival struggle to trust in each other’s love. Supported by Whyborne’s colleague and best friend, Egyptologist Dr. Christine Putnam – a vehement feminist who is more at home shooting a rifle than holding a teacup – Griffin and Percival try to build a life as a couple in a world that is both hostile to them and seething with unseen magic.
Throughout the books the backstories of both men pervade the plotlines. Whyborne’s richly sinister family — his unscrupulous robber-baron father, Niles, his neurasthenic but loving mother Heliabel, and his dismissive and arrogant siblings Guinevere and Stanford — each have an important role in the unraveling of the complicated Gordian knot of interconnected plotlines in which Ms. Hawk ensnares us. But Griffin has his family issues as well; an adopted child, he yearns to reconnect with his Midwestern, religiously conservative family. The fact that the two men can never show their feelings to each other in any way that would tip off those around them simply adds an edge of poignancy to their relationship.
In three of the seven books, the narrative moves outside of Widdershins itself. The second novel, Threshold, takes our heroes to a mining town in the Wild West, which has its own paranormal problems focused on Native American legends and the mountain that looms over the mining enterprise. Necropolis, the fourth book in the series, has Whyborne and Griffin follow Dr. Putnam to Egypt, where eerier-than-usual doings have raised an alarm. Hoarfrost, the sixth installment, takes the crew to Alaska, this time with Griffin’s brother Jack and Christine’s half-Egyptian fiancé, Iskander, as part of their team. It is in Hoarfrost, a goldmining operation, that several mysterious threads from previous novels come together. It is both the most absurd and the most harrowing of the novels, pushing every member of the cast to the edge, testing friendship, sanity, and love alike.
The other books take place in and around Widdershins itself, but believe me when I assure you that there’s no dearth of creepiness right at home for our boys and their friends. Stormhaven is a brutal insane asylum near Widdershins, whose cruel treatment of its (not always guilty) inmates seems oddly tied to the Whyborne family’s less savory side. Bloodline stays close to home as well, and reveals startling truths about the Whyborne family that even their ruthless business practices never suggested.
I’ve just finished Maelstrom, seventh in the series, which has kept me hooked from the very first volume, Widdershins. The maelstrom of the seventh volume is the vortex of magic on which Widdershins was built, whose influence, it turns out, stretches halfway around the world and is linked to the ancient past.
Although each of the books is action-packed and builds on the men’s growing love for each other, I am always happiest when things happen in Whyborne’s hometown and in his rambling, arcana-filled museum, the Ladysmith, designed by a mad architect who subsequently killed himself. The museum is almost another character in the series, caught in the same arcane history of hidden magic, and its collections become a global microcosm of paranormality that lead our lovers and their friends on the series of adventures that test their courage and risk their lives. Each book offers its charms and excitement, but it is the family of characters, good, bad and eccentric, that we come to care about most.
Go buy Widdershins and get started. You won’t regret it.