Recently widowed from an unpleasant husband, Cora Seaborne has moved from London to the Essex parish of Aldwinter with her son and friend Martha. It is a time of exciting scientific change and discovery as people realise that fossils pose as many questions as they answer. Women have started to play a limited role in the discovery of these almost supernatural creatures finding the bones scattered below cliffs as they erode. Her arrival in the wilds of Essex happens around the time that a folktale has come back to life and the village and people of the Blackwater estuary are living in fear of the Essex serpent once again.
The fear is brought to life with the discovery of a drowned man, naked with his head rotated almost 180 degrees and a look of terror in his eyes. One man who sees the parish crumbling in their faith is the vicar, Will Ransome, they start to resort to pagan superstitions and pure cold fear of what may lurk in the waters. Cora arriving in his parish adds to his challenges as she declares that science offers as many explanations as religion does to their present threat. Their relationship sparks fierce debate and unspoken attraction, but Cora has another that is besotted by her, Luke Garrett, a surgeon of some note, who affection is not returned. Will they be able to understand what lurks in the Blackwater, and will they resolve the relationship to something more amiable?
Perry has set the story in a time where society is undergoing huge social changes and scientific understanding is growing and challenging the status quo of the state. There is a lot to like about this, the story is richly imagined, full of detail and with a gothic sub note all the way through, the strained relationship between Cora and William adds greatly to the story too. However, I did feel that there were too many characters in the story as it flipped back and forward between London and Essex. The plot had a little too much going on as well, but the various sub plots did add the necessary depth. Glad I have read it and would suit those that like Victorian dramas.