Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Book Review - Alison Goodman's The Dark Days Club

The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman
Published by: Speak
Publication Date: December 14th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 544 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

When Lady Helen Wrexhall's parents died she thought that would be the biggest upset to her life. Her and her brother became orphans on the suffrage of their Aunt and Uncle Pennworth and life moved on. On the eve of her presentation to the Queen, Lady Helen assumed the only stumbling block to making a good match and avoiding a scene in front of royalty would be the lingering scandal of being the daughter of Lady Catherine, the Countess of Hayden, a traitor to the crown, but she was wrong. Lady Helen's life is about to change irrevocably and the only hint she has is her friend Delia Cransdon being ruined. Helen has always had an uncanny knack of reading people and she knows her Aunt Leonore is hiding something from her. Because the story will be the talk of the town Aunt Leonore agrees to tell everything to Helen as a warning and also because she has a love for the dramatic and Gothic. After two unsuccessful seasons Delia ran off with a man named Trent three days prior. Instead of heading to Scotland and an elopement, they were found in Sussex. Mr. Trent shot himself in the head and as he died, according to a groom from a nearby public house, he was lit from within. Mr. Trent must have been a ghoul to leave poor Delia ruined and covered in his blood.

Helen's first instinct is to rush to Delia's side but her Aunt makes it very clear that all of society has cut poor Delia and that Pennworth in particular will have no whiff of anything untoward happening to Helen. So Helen must go forward with her plans for the season. Presentations and balls and card parties and calling on friends, all while forsaking a dear friend for the sake of respectability. Yet her Uncle Pennworth has a secret, his side of the family also has a notorious member, Lord Carlston, who fled England three years prior because he was accused of murdering his wife. The fact that her body was never found didn't much matter to society. On the day of her presentation Lady Helen and Lord Carlston's paths will cross and he will take something very precious from her, a portrait of her mother, a portrait she foolishly brought to court because who brings the picture of a traitor when being presented to the Queen? Yet the Queen hints that perhaps all of society is wrong about Lady Catherine. There are so many questions swirling about in Helen's mind she soon realizes that the only one who might have any answers is Lord Carlston. As the two get to know each other she realizes the world is full of monsters and she was put on earth to destroy them. But will her destiny destroy her future?

The way the magic systems work in the Regency Magic genre can be broadly placed in three categories. The first and most common is that everyone knows about magic. Magic is a part of everyday life and it's just accepted and we get on with our story. The second is that the knowledge of magic is held by a select few, sometimes secret societies, sometimes families, but our heroine, and let me here point out that in Regency Magic it is almost always a heroine, is already in the know but gets drawn further into the magical world over the course of her story. The third and rarest category is the one in which our heroine is completely oblivious to magic and is thrust into this new world with no prerequisite knowledge and has to learn everything. The Dark Days Club falls into this rarefied third category and it made me giddy. Over the years of devouring books written in the Regency Magic genre it's very rare that a book or series feels fresh. They are usually just reassembling the same building blocks into a new and lovely picture, but it's still the basic building blocks. Here though I felt revitalized! Here was something new! Instead of being annoyed reading exposition about the already known magical system here we were on the journey with Helen learning all about Deceivers and Reclaimers and it made the book that much more visceral a read.

Alison Goodman doubled down on the originality in that instead of going to the fairy standby she chose a different path. Again, not that I have anything against fairies, with the time period they make sense with the romanticizing of the time period, but sometimes it's nice to not have fairies if you know what I mean. The Dark Days Club is far more demonic. This is why I really loved this book, it was Regency Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And if you're not rushing to the bookstore to pick this series up with that one sentence, I'm sorry, but I don't think we can be friends. Helen becomes a chosen one, she's a Reclaimer, like her mother before her, that has been gifted with supernatural powers, such as increased strength and hearing, and that habit of her of reading people? Well that would be so she can figure out what people are really Deceivers in disguise. Because Deceivers are the name given to the four kinds of demons in Helen's world. And what I really think is clever about naming them Deceivers is that it ties back into the Prince of Darkness, Satan himself, the Prince of Lies, the Great Deceiver himself! There's just so much more at stake when the upcoming war of good versus evil isn't again Napoleon or some fairies but is against the very denizens of hell.

This willingness to embrace the darkness of the Regency period is what sets this book completely apart from all other books I've read in this genre. When people think of the Regency period they think of Jane Austen whose writing has a universality to it. Yet to me sometimes making a book precisely about the time period is even more of an escape. And instead of just sticking to the broad strokes most authors do, such as Napoleon, with a few daring to expand to the social unrest of the time, we get specificity for 1812. We get to see the social unrest through the Luddite riots in the north, we see the dark underbelly of Regency England, we see the pee cups that girls about to be presented used behind screens at court when they were about to be presented to the Queen. And seriously, those pee cups answered a lot of questions I've had over the years wondering if people just had larger bladders in the 1800s... because me and that pee cup would have become very good friends what with my nerves. Though for me the part that had me wringing my hands with almost maniacal glee was the inclusion of the Ratcliff Highway Murders. These gruesome real life crimes have captivated people from those like Helen and possibly even Jane Austen herself who would have devoured the tale in the penny press to mystery writer P.D. James who wrote about them in The Maul and the Pear Tree. And as I'm sure you know, I love me a good true crime. This combination of fantasy and reality is what really sets The Dark Days Club apart.

Yet none of this would matter if the book didn't have characters we love and hate. Despite the fact I could probably rage against Helen's Uncle Pennworth for hours I will instead concentrate on my favorite character, Helen's lady's maid, Darby. Darby is the heart of this book. Not only does she ground the narrative for us readers by asking the questions of Lady Helen we would as if we were in her shoes, such as are Lady Helen's powers evil, but she drives the narrative with her coming to terms with this new world order. For Darby it all starts out small, worrying about one of the house maids who has gone missing, and this one question, this one small investigation, catapults her and Lady Helen into this new world. What's more, once a part of this world she doesn't question the rightness of it. For every Reclaimer, they have an assistant they share their powers with, their Terrene. This person grounds them, quite literally, and that is what I connect to with Darby. She is so practical, so down-to-earth, that she is the perfect sidekick, companion, Terrene, to Lady Helen. Plus her tendre that she develops for Lord Carlston's Terrene Quinn, for me, this is the true love story of the book. Not Helen and her choosing between Lord Carlston and her brother's best friend the Duke, it's all about Darby and Quinn, two people whose place in life might have precluded finding love.

Finally though I have to go a little off book, well not so much off book as to another book... Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery to be precise. This book holds a special place in my heart because my binge of Michael Crichton's oeuvre is really what made me the reader I am today. There are so many memorable scenes in that book that were later brought to life in Crichton's own adaptation starring Sean Connery that I will forever think of them as the pinnacle of a successful action sequence. One such scene that worked just as successfully on the page as on the screen is when our delightful villains have to break a snakesman out of Newgate Prison using a public hanging as distraction. This scene is a scene that I don't think will ever leave me for how taunt if made every nerve in my body. Therefore I was very excited when the action of The Dark Days Club took us to a public hanging at Newgate Prison, and not just a fictional hanging, but the execution of John Bellingham who had assassinated the Prime Minster Spencer Perceval. This melding of reality and fiction was just perfect and the taut action took me right back to the time when I first read The Great Train Robbery. The crush of the crowd, the frenzy, the mania, all of it came together perfectly to not only make me remember why I love reading so much but why I love this book so much. I seriously can not wait for the next installment!


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