The world of Julia Stuart's latest novel is one of whimsical characters muddling through vaguely improbable situations.
Balthazar Jones is a beefeater at the Tower of London who's been chosen to oversee an exotic animal menagerie that the queen has decreed will make the Tower their home. Meanwhile, Balthazar and his wife are struggling to repair a marriage that is coming apart following their young son's death.
This particular story line is as heartbreaking as it sounds, but its impact is at times diluted by the characters' relentlessly penned affectations (Balthazar races to the roof at night to collect rainfall in Egyptian glass perfume bottles, for example).
Numerous other point-of-view characters pepper these pages, and Stuart clearly has great affection for the world that they inhabit, providing exhaustive historical details both real and imagined. Her penchant for excessively florid sentences distracts from the heart of the work, however, and can make for an exhausting read at times. The characters' eccentricities, while colorful, make them hard to connect to on a human level, and keep the reader at an emotional distance. What feels like the strongest and most important story line -- a couple coping in the aftermath of a son's death -- is unfortunately buried beneath too many layers of whimsy and quirk.