In this time of omens and portents, Magnus Malachi the charlatan has been lucky enough to find a true oracle, Tersias, a boy blinded by his mother in order to beg better. He parades the boy round the streets in a cage painted gold. Tersias's gift comes at a high price: his oracles are whispered to him by the Wretchkin, a fearsome supernatural creature. In one respect, Tersias can be said to be fortunate in this gloomy novel. He at least has no fear of the dark.
When the teenage highwayman Jonah Ketch holds up a coach in Conduit fields, just north of Bloomsbury, he's surprised but unperturbed to find that there is only one passenger, though he distinctly hears two voices coming from within. Sinister Lord Malpas is not at all pleased to be made to part with a mysterious alabaster box bound in silver. His desperation to retrieve the item brings him to Tersias and the Wretchkin: "You have lost a box... and a dagger... you should take greater care of other people's property." And what is the nature of the dagger, which has dealt Jonah a wound in the arm that will not heal? Suffice it to say that it's all a bit Da Vinci Code.
Taylor excels at metaphysical terror; not surprising for a Church of England vicar who has conducted 50 exorcisms. Also desperate to get his hands on Tersias is Solomon, the leader of a messianic cult whose HQ Taylor mischievously sites near Freemason's hall in Covent Garden. Solomon is running a giant dungeon for his enemies. The scene where Jonah's friend and accomplice Tara finds she has company in her pitch-black cell is one of the most scary and revolting that I've ever come across in a "children's" book - more Melmoth the Wanderer than Harry Potter.
Taylor conjures up marvellous settings for his characters, like Vamana House: "For 300 years it had been the home of a Malpas. From the dwarf lord who first put stone on stone as a refuge for his thievery in the deep marshes that flanked the Thames to Pious John, who scourged himself every hour with a whip of coarse rats' tails." He is superb at creating atmosphere, so he can be forgiven his occasional adjectival and adverbial excesses and the odd gothic cliché. What can't so easily be forgiven, in his editor at least, is a clumsy mix-up of sliver and slither: "searching within for the strength to smash it to the ground and crush every slither of timber to the dust". It's maddening to see such an error in a book aimed at children.