Pretty dang soon after I finished up reading Eon and Eona late last year, I learned that Alison Goodman had a new YA fantasy series about to start up. Since her first series was complicated and interesting and took lots of risks (even if they didn’t always work), I was already intrigued by the promise of a new series from her, but when I saw her refer to it as “Pride and Prejudice meets Buffy in English high society”, I pretty much needed to read it as soon as possible.
Lady Helen Wrexhall is seventeen years old, and an orphan living in Regency England. Her parents died ten years previously, amidst circumstances unfortunately connected to her mother being thought a traitor to England. Her brother Andrew inherited their father’s Earldom, but Helen is living with her aunt and uncle until her brother decides he’s had enough of galavanting around London living the life of a rich bachelor and sets up a household. Helen is particularly anxious for this to happen because, while her aunt is well-meaning, she’s entirely focused on trying to marry Helen off, as is her uncle, who is NOT well meaning, and is actually quite an asshole.
Just as she’s about to turn eighteen and be presented to the Queen of England, a series of events occur that rapidly change Helen’s life. One of her dearest friends is embroiled in a scandal, a maid goes missing from her household, and a socially disgraced nobleman accused of murdering his wife, whose body was never found, returns to society. All of these events are connected to England’s darkest secret: that there are now, and have been for thousands of years, threatening creatures infiltrated at all levels of society. Creatures who pretend to be human, but who aren’t, who are in fact parasites who inhabit and feed off of human bodies and appetites. And of course, there is a group of people who fight them at the behest of Queen and Country: the Dark Days Club. Most of the members of this club are ordinary people. But there are a select few who are born with powers evolved specifically to combat the Deceivers. And yes, of course, Lady Helen is one of those. But you knew that, because you’re reading a YA book, and why would we be reading about Helen if she wasn’t one?
This book isn’t perfect, but there’s so much going for it that any of its several “flaws” can be easily overlooked. Let’s do the flaws first, so we can end on a positive note.
The biggest thing with this book is that nearly all of it is set-up. With any fantasy series, the first book is necessarily going to be chock full of worldbuilding, but usually you also have an active arc for your main character. The ideal would be for your main character to be confronted with a challenge, and to make active choices in response. Unfortunately, Helen is passive for most of this book. Partly she’s so passive by necessity, because the society she lived in was one in which women WERE passive objects. As a character, she really can’t be too active without risking social ostracism. In fact, even her mostly passive behavior is enough to cause severe consequences for her. So I’m willing to forgive her passivity to a certain extent. It wouldn’t be historically accurate otherwise.
At the same time, I’m certain there were ways the author could have gotten around that. Helen partakes in some questionable activities in her duties with the Club, and yet, she always seems to be doing so because somebody else wants her to, not because she chooses to. I believe this was written on purpose, because in the end it’s the climax of the book that Helen make a single choice, but in order to get there, she has to be frustratingly choiceless the rest of the book. I’m not sure how the author could have gotten around it, but I wish she would have found a way. Things just HAPPEN to Helen. A good story has things happen to their characters AND their characters happen to things. The only other complaint I have is that the story is a bit predictable in its overall story. The details are wonderful and surprising, but the big moments you can see coming a mile away. I hope this changes in future books.
So let’s talk about those little moments, because they’re the reason all those flaws up there, while frustrating, are easy for me to overlook.
Firstly, the historical detail in the is book is astounding. I’ve read books set in Regency England before, but none of them included such a finely honed sense for atmospheric details. Just little tiny things that when taken together paint a vivid picture of the world Lady Helen lives in: the food, the clothing, the types of reading publications the characters would have actually read, specific names for things like types of carriages and clothing items, smells. She also does an excellent job placing the world physically in your mind. A lot of the times when I’m reading historical fiction, the author is so concerned with the story and characters, they neglect geography and politics. Goodman is so good at writing in such a way that you not only visualize who these people are, but where they are in space and time. Her characters are aware of their place in the social strata, and in the physical space of London. We see characters and locations from the lowest poverty stricken wretch, all the way up to the elaborate drawing room of the queen. And unlike, say, Austen (whom you all know I love very much), her characters are very aware of not just their own lives, but the lives of other people in their cities, and people in the countries around them. It’s not flashy or showy, but it’s so, so important to be able to create that kind of thing in a reader’s mind. It makes the story feel real.
She’s also really good at the writing itself. What I mean by that, because appreciation for an author’s particular style is subjective, is that she perfectly tailors her third person narrator and her character’s voices to fit the time period they live in. She walks a fine line between giving it that Regency feel, and still somehow making it feel like a modern story. Her characters are witty and smart (except of course when they’re not), and they talk like real people would. Of course, her characters also live in a time period where it was the norm to adhere to a strict decorum, and most things worth saying could not be said straight or in public, if at all.
And I haven’t even talked about the characters yet! Lady Helen herself is very likable, but because of her passivity, she doesn’t really start to come into her own until more than halfway through the book. The rest of the characters, though, are so good. Even the bad guys are finely drawn and complicated. Lady Helen has wonderful female friends, the best of which is her lady’s maid, Darby. And yes, she does have some love interests, and while her relationships with both of them are mostly predictable, they are both fully realized, and their interactions with her have real weight.
I’m pretty positive that now the set up is all out of the way, future books will be more unpredictable and feature a more active Lady Helen, fully in control and making her own choices. (And where the book leaves her makes this especially likely.)
If you like historical fiction and fantasy, I do recommend checking this book out. It’s a fast, fun read, and future books look like they could be amazing.