HEART OF STONE by Johannes T Evans (BOOK REVIEW)
The year is 1764, and following a glowing recommendation from his last employer, Henry Coffey, vampire, takes on a new personal secretary: young Theophilus Essex.
The man is quite unlike any secretary – or any man, for that matter – that Henry has ever met.
‘Heart of Stone’ is a slowly unfolding period romance between a vampire and his inimitably devoted clerk: lushly depicted in flowing, lovingly appended prose, we follow the slow understanding these two men grasp of one another, and the cross of their two worlds into each other’s.
Henry Coffey, immortal and ever-oscillating between periods of delighted focus upon his current passion project, is charming, witty, and seems utterly incapable of closing his mouth for more than a few moments; in contrast, Theophilus Essex is quiet and keenly focused, adopting an ever-flat affect, but as time goes on, he relaxes in his employer’s presence.
Craving resounding intimacy but with an ever aware of the polite boundaries for their situation, Coffey and Essex perform a slow dance as they grow closer to one another, and find themselves entangled.
Henry Coffey is a vampire, and a bored one. When he finds himself in need of a secretary, he’s taken aback by how well he gets on with the reserved Theophilus Essex, and even more surprised by the affection that grows between them. This is a slow burn of a story that lovers of historical fantasy won’t be able to help but fall in love with. The writing is pitch-perfect for the eighteenth century setting, flowing and formal, but stays on the right side of readable – you’ll definitely take your time reading it, but because you’re luxuriating in the pining! The historical setting allows a masterful mix of vampire tropes to be explored, from their gentility to their sensuality to their defining other-ness, and the result is one of the most interesting takes on vampire romance I’ve ever read.
The narrative has a tight focus; chapters alternate between Henry’s and Theophilus’s point of view, and though there are plenty of other characters who play important roles, you almost get the sense that they’re intruding on the intense cocoon of the relationship between the two leads. Henry has by far the most connections, with a household full of servants who are more like family, and friends among the vampire set, while Theophilus is more isolated, which speaks volumes about their respective personalities. The story sweeps gently from subplot to subplot, but we never lose the threads holding everything together: how these two unusual people — one human, one vampire — become home for each other. The narrow focus on the two of them means that you get a wonderfully well-rounded image of both characters’ interactions and emotions; in some romances, dramatic conversations are rushed and feelings appear out of nowhere to fit around the plot, but there’s a feeling of fullness and believability that comes from this more character-focused style.
And (luckily, since we spend so much time with them), I hugely enjoyed the characters here. The author is upfront on his social media that, although modern labels wouldn’t fit due to the time period, Henry has ADHD and Theophilus is autistic. I thought that they were wonderfully well-drawn – I particularly liked Henry’s tendency to ask questions that seemingly came out of nowhere, but were actually the result of a long chain of thoughts spinning off from one another, which is an ADHD trait I’m very familiar with! I found myself beaming on several occasions at the wit that sparks between Henry and Theophilus as a result of these leaps in subject. Henry’s ever-changing hobbies and hyperfixations have served him well through his immortality, and it’s a fascinating take on vampirism to actually look at how one entertains oneself between all the blood-drinking. There’s excellent queer representation too: apart from the obvious central relationship between the two men, there are casual references to trans side characters and plenty of other gay, bi and pan characters appear too. This definitely isn’t a queer-norm world — the attitudes of human society to gay men are historically accurate — but there’s a feeling of acceptance among all the specific characters of the book that is heart-warming to read. Vampires are so often associated with queerness in literature, and I thought this book explored that sense of being ‘other’ very well.
I’m a huge fan of a story with smaller, more domestic stakes. I love people finding their place in the world and other people’s hearts, and I love books that give their characters a chance to be themselves, rather than drowning them in great waves of drama for the sake of ‘keeping things moving’. A lot happens in this book, but the plot is as gentlemanly as the characters, politely visiting but never talking over the true heart of the story. It’s just a lovely reading experience. If you’re in need of a new take on vampires that is guaranteed to leave you smiling, I highly recommend Heart of Stone.
Sometimes what you need is a book so warm and heartfelt that reading it feels like your brain is nestled in a comfortable armchair by a roaring fire, and if that’s what you’re in the mood for, then Heart of Stone is the perfect fit.