Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Book Review - Lauren Willig's The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla (Pink Carnation Book 11) by Lauren Willig
Published by: NAL Trade
Publication Date: August 5th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 496 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Sally Fitzhugh spent all her time at Lady Climpson's Select Seminary dreaming of the day when she would leave Bath and get to go to all the society balls she could wish for instead of figuring out new and ingenious ways to get out of doing homework. Adventure is right outside those Seminary walls, but perhaps it's not all it's cracked up to be. Sally has been out a year and she never thought the time would come when she would be bored with this life she dreamed of. But everything has not gone according to plan. As soon as she left the Seminary her two best friends, Agnes and Lizzy, were involved in a grand cross-country caper and she was at just another boring ball. If things couldn't get worse the silly people of the ton are enraptured with Lizzy's step-mother's book, The Convent of Orsino, and a vampire craze has engulfed the little season in October. The mania might have played itself out if not for the fact there is a member of the ton that perfectly embodies the vampiric ideal. He's moody, he's broody, he's been away for years, he's an enigma to everyone, he's the Duke of Belliston.

All the rumors of vampires and the occult are swirling around the newly returned Duke. Absent from England since the death of his parents years prior all the rumors of anything supernatural comes to rest on his shoulders. He is the perfect vampire, or so everyone is saying. Everyone but Sally. She thinks it all too silly and is far more interested in the fact that Agnes and Lizzy are now out and perhaps they will enliven this dreary season. Only since their adventures after Sally left the seminary the trio is more a duo and Sally is feeling distinctly left out. At another interminable party abutting the regal home of the Duke of Belliston Sally takes a dare to walk across the dormant gardens over to his house. Boredom and the assumption that she won't be caught make Sally rash and she strides straight into Lucien, the Duke himself. Events soon transpire to thrust these two together on a more daily basis... but is this relationship something the two of them might secretly hope for? Could Sally fall for a supposed vampire?

If you've never met Lauren, she's this little pepperpot of energy powered by caffeine that talks a mile a minute from topics ranging from the sex lives of socialites in Kenya to Cary Elwes in Ella Enchanted to her high school debates. She exudes such a fun and vibrant energy that her happiness and far ranging interests are contagious. While being a writer of historical fiction, she is, in my mind, the exact opposite of the more staid and reserved "traditional" historical fiction authors out there, ahem Philippa Gregory. The reason for this character study is that Lauren's bubbly enthusiasm carries over to her books. Lauren has the research and the facts down, she has the academic and scholarly aspects of Gregory, but it's her enthusiasm that makes her books so much more than a well written piece of historical fiction. Lauren's books are fun because she brings herself into the equation, perhaps a little more in this volume with the fate of her modern day protagonist, Eloise, who is researching Sally and Lucien. She loves her characters and her stories with such zeal that you are carried along with her on a reading adventure that you won't forget.

Lauren doesn't take herself too seriously and she is able to have fun with the historical genre while deftly skewering it at the same time with wordplay and modern nudges and winks. Though the theatre major in me had a major chuckle over the "renaming" of Sheridan's The School for Scandal as The Tutelage of Scandal, it's really vampire literature that is most lovingly lambasted in The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla. Just the idea that Miss Gwen, that bane of all young gentleman with her pointy parasol, would be the Stephenie Meyer of her day is a hoot. Miss Gwen not only has the ton in a virtual vampire frenzy, but she even has sparkly vampires, with Lauren creating parodies on so many levels, from what it is to be an author, to an author's fanbase, all the way to all the different vampire iterations over the centuries, that you can't help but fall for this book. This 19th century Twilight-Mania is far more entertaining than the actual Twilight-Mania was. Add to this the references to Monty Python's Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and to The Princess Bride, Lauren's willingness to takes liberties will make you smile inside and want to hold onto this series forever.

Looking back on the penultimate entry in Lauren's Pink Carnation series, I can't help but mourn the loss in my life of a new volume every year. The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is such a strong entry in this series that while I know it's best to go out on top, with all the vampire and Gothic goodness, but the ending was bittersweet because Lauren just keeps developing as a writer and I will always long to know what happens next. She has been able to avoid many of the pitfalls of long running series by having each book be some offshoot of the first volume. Main characters will reappear, but never in more then background rolls, while the previous background characters take center stage. I love Sally Fitzhugh taking center stage, and yes, that's because I have a great love for all the Fitzhughs. But beyond that Sally is such an interesting character (but let's not talk about the chickens) with an indomitable will for one so young. And I know I can go back and re-read this series over and over again, but it's not the same. Though Lauren hasn't stopped writing, with her standalone books she is almost a more serious writer. I want a little more of the goofiness of Sally and a little less serious authoress.

And it's the events Sally is thrust into that really gripped me. Because at the heart of all the Napoleonic spies and secret leagues, the core of this book is a murder mystery, with a random attack stoat. While the spy angle of this series has always been important, the truth is, spies aren't for everyone. I think this volume will have a wider appeal than previous ones because of the apparent murder/suicide of the Duke of Belliston's parents. This mystery gave the book a greater urgency and made me devour it at a most rapacious rate. Years ago now I remember there was a debate as to whether the modern sections with Eloise might be phased out. I was a strong proponent of keeping the feisty American researching Napoleonic spies. But looking at this book and thinking about recommending it to others, I wonder, with Eloise's story needing the previous volumes in order to be understood, maybe this volume could be released without the modern interludes, much as Sally's brother's story, The Mischief of the Mistletoe, was. I just want more people to pick up this book and this series! I want everyone to see that vampires, and romance, and the Regency era, while you might not think it's for you, it so totally could be.


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