You can run, but you can’t hide—not from the acrid fog that moves over England in June of 1783, “a bank of billowing cloud, its great curves and sweeps and pillows of vapor easily visible, like the full sails of a galleon.”
In Tessa Harris’ The Devil’s Breath, the deadly cloud attacks the lungs, claiming the lives of more and more people each day, but anatomist Dr. Thomas Silkstone doesn’t believe that a biblical plague is the cause. As he examines the bodies of victims of the mysterious phenomenon, he applies all the scientific methods available in his time to determine the nature of the noxious fumes.
Amid the darkening skies, Silkstone has traveled from London to the countryside estate of Lady Lydia Farrell, the woman he intends to marry one day. The two are searching for clues to the whereabouts of her 6-year-old son, after documents surface that lead her to believe that the infant she thought had died shortly after childbirth is in fact alive somewhere in England. In their pursuit, however, a shadowy, unknown figure appears to be on the same journey—always one step ahead of them.
The Devil’s Breath is filled with lively, believable characters, from field workers struck down by the encroaching cloud to gentlefolk holed up inside their estates. The countryside is full of zealots trying to take advantage of the uncertainty and fear following in its wake, and one in particular, an itinerant knife-grinder, proves a dangerous adversary. Likewise, a neighbor, the Rev. George Lightfoot, becomes increasingly erratic, acting on his belief that casting out devils is the only surefire way to end the plague that has taken the life of his own wife.
The debut book in this series, The Anatomist’s Apprentice (2012), provided a fascinating glimpse into the state of forensic science in the 18th century. The Devils’ Breath, the second entry, gives scientific phenomena star billing while describing the “soap opera” events of the day in all their drama.
The Devil’s Breath is a fascinating exploration of the conflict between old and new. At a time when natural happenings appear to have their roots in the persnickety whims of a vengeful God, the forked tongue of sin and repentance is about to give way to a refreshing breath of knowledge, in the rudiments of a new, more scientific age.