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City of Light    by Lauren Belfer order for
City of Light
by Lauren Belfer
Order:  USA  Can
Island, 2000 (1999)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

City of Light is a historical mystery that captures the pioneering spirit of the development and early introduction of electricity, with its overall impact on industrialization. The tale is set in Buffalo in the early 1900's, when the focus of the city was: 'Electricity: It seemed like magic, but it was science. Magic had become science, science had become magic, anything was possible and the future was ours.'

The heroine of the story is Louisa Sinclair, a young headmistress who has moulded her entire life to keep a secret. She shares center stage with electricity itself and all the trappings that are involved in its generation, including the stunning power of Niagara Falls. Louisa contains her rebellious feelings about the role of women, and expresses them only in the education that she gives to upper class girls in her Macauley School. She is in her thirties and unmarried, but retains a freedom of action unusual for a woman through her position and circumspect behavior.

Louisa is protective of her 9 year old goddaughter, Grace Sinclair and concerned about Grace's behaviour since the death of her mother, Louisa's best friend. She is increasingly attracted to Grace's father Tom, who is in charge of the development of the power stations at Niagara. Tom's lower class origins have given him a dream of providing electricity to the poor, which has put him at odds with both the industrialists who want only to exploit it and with environmentalists, concerned with the impact on the Falls.

There are a series of murders of men associated with Tom's work. Louisa suspects his involvement and slowly uncovers more about the project and those associated with it, though she does not actively investigate. The author provides a rich background on the city of Buffalo and the racial and union conflicts during this period. For good measure she throws in historical events like a local scandal about one president, the assassination of another and the international Pan-American Exposition, which all occur in Buffalo during its period of greatness.

City of Light is a tale both of light and of the shadows that it casts - old and new secrets, the manipulations of the powerful, bigotry and the madness of fanaticism. Louisa is a strong woman cast into an essentially powerless and passive role, whose ending seems inevitable. This is a potent first novel.

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