Friday, June 16, 2017

All Hail, Lady Helen

I'm going to let you in on a little secret about me: I am not only a huge nerd, but I'm also a serious history buff.  My all-time favorite film character is Indiana Jones (followed a close second by Evie O'Connell - a fiercely independent librarian who isn't afraid to travel to Egypt for her studies, or to stand up to an ancient, evil mummy who is trying to steal her soul is, quite literally, the best EVER), and when I was a child, I really, really, really wanted to grow up to be an archaeologist. I could see myself tromping around Egyptian tombs in khakis and a pith helmet wielding a brush in one hand and a pistol to deter nefarious criminals in the other... 

One of my university professors came along just at the right time with his bountiful knowledge of all things ancient (see: old, antique, archaic) and spoke to my soul.  In addition to shaping the minds of the future, Doc actively worked as an archaeologist, and in the years I was at school he worked in Egypt, excavating one of the first known Coptic churches, and discovered the sunken ships from Columbus' second voyage off the coast of the Dominican Republic.  It was awesome to go along with him on his adventures - even if it was via his stories.  I learned more about the Ancient World from him than I ever thought possible, and will be eternally grateful. 

Alas, I did not grow up to be an archaeologist.  (I did, however, grow up to be a librarian, and I wouldn't say no to a trip to Egypt, or to meeting a mummy...)  But I have retained my deep love for exploration and history.  Therefore, I tend to gravitate toward historical books. I appreciate the energy and meticulous work it takes to produce a well-done historical.  I also turn into a raging green Hulk-monster when a historical is done badly.  (Seriously, if you're going to be lazy and not put in the research effort, why even bother?  Don't waste my time.)

Alison Goodman does historical well.  Nay, superbly.  In this particular instance, she is writing a "Regency" (takes place during the reign of King George III, when he was unwell and declared unfit to rule, so his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his stead) and the attention she pays to detail alone is astounding, right down to the types of fabric on the chairs in the Morning Room.  The dress, the food, the manners, the politics, the demands of society and rank - nothing is left out, and nothing is left to question.  Goodman must be very nearly a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Regency England.  It is to Goodman's credit that she teaches me things as I read.  I never felt as if the detail or explanations slowed the story down - rather, I believe they lend a richness to the narrative that helps establish its authenticity.  Hooray for history!

The Dark Days Pact continues the story of Lady Helen Wrexhall (you can read my review of book one, The Dark Days Club, here) as she settles into her role as a Reclaimer with the Dark Days Club.  It takes place nearly immediately following the events of book one, so there is no time lag between the two books.  Here is the brief blurb (from Goodreads) and cover:

June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

I found this installment of the series very nearly impossible to turn off (I listened to this as an audiobook).  In fact, there were several times I sat in my driveway or in a parking lot with my car running, just waiting for a scene to end so I could find out what happened.  I was very invested in this story, and in the characters.  There is a lot more action in this book than in the last - and understandably so.  The world is already built, and readers are aware of the nature of the battle between Reclaimers and Deceivers, the role of the Dark Days Club, and the characters and which parts they play.  Thus, Goodman could far more quickly advance the story.  And advance the story does, by great galloping leaps and bounds.

Most of this book takes place in Brighton, which I loved.  The glimpses of the popular seaside town are a fabulous addition to the overall story, and Goodman places readers right in the middle of the bustle.  There is a library, and it was really interesting to see how the library was regarded as the "fashionable" place to register one's presence in Brighton.  See?  Libraries ARE cool.  (As if anyone needed convincing of that fact.)

The shining stars of this book, however, are its characters.  Goodman does a brilliant job of making them individual and unique, and of giving each of them their own voice.  Each had individualized strengths and weaknesses, and at least the main cast functions as a well-meaning, if not well-oiled machine.

 I find Lady Helen to be a stellar character.  She embodies everything I think a model character should - and NOT because Goodman is setting her up as some sort of scion of perfection.  Rather, she is written so real.  She has doubts, she makes mistakes, she goes left when she should go right.  But she learns.  And she tries.  She is not content to merely be adequate; she wants to be exceptional.  She throws herself wholly into her role as a Reclaimer, taking her oath as gospel, even to the point of putting herself in mortal danger to fulfill her duty.  The growth she demonstrates, and the ability to adapt and adjust to the demands of the situation is admirable.  She finds her teeth in this book, and she is the very definition of formidable.  I am a serious fan of Lady Helen.

I am not a Lord Carlston devotee.  Yes, he's handsome.  Yes, he's brave.  Yes, he's mysterious.  Yes, he's tragic.  But he's also bossy and presumptuous and grumpers all the time. Though I think Carlston is the best person to teach Lady Helen to care for her body while fighting as a Reclaimer, I do not think he's the best person to teach her to care for her soul.  Carlston has been through horrors, and has not come out unscathed (though, to be fair, who could?).  He has allowed his experiences to darken him, and allows his jaded view of the world to extend to Helen.

Darby.  Dear, sweet, reliable Darby.  It was the best decision Lady Helen ever made when she promoted Darby to lady's maid - and then to terrene.  Helen's success is made possible because of Darby's support.  Additionally, I am completely delighted by Delia, Lady Helen's disgraced friend who had an unfortunate encounter with a Deceiver, which (forever, because apparently there is no getting back into society's good graces once fallen) ruined her reputation.  She is sharp-witted, quick on the uptake, and is refreshingly honest in this world of manners.  She is no simpering debutante, and I believe she will prove to be one of Lady Helen's most trusted companions. Likewise, Pug Brompton is adorable, and I just want to squeeze her. 

The Hammonds, twins Michael and Margaret are, for me, on opposite ends of the likeability spectrum.  I adore Michael - he has a true heart, and a vulnerability that makes me want to give him a hug and protect him with a giant Highlander-sized broadsword.  Margaret, on the other hand, is like a mosquito I'd like to swat away, complete with the annoying whine.  Her concern is for Carlston alone, and everyone else is secondary.  This, to me, makes her a liability, rather than an asset. 

I may be in the minority, but the Duke of Selburn is my absolute fave. For the first half of the book he was in danger of me cursing him to the devil, but he definitely redeems himself.  There are those who believe he has nefarious intentions (ie, he may be the Grand Deceiver), but I do not think this is so.  I think that would be too convenient.  Rather, I think he genuinely cares for Lady Helen, and wants to see her safe, by any means.  He has yet to realize that he cannot physically protect Helen - he simply doesn't have the strength - but maybe he is the one to be able to protect her soul.  (I feel compelled to confess that, though it breaks my heart to say it, I think Selburn is going to die in the next book, killed protecting Lady Helen.)

The bad guys in this book, Lowry (just, ick) and Pike (though he is a member of the DDC, I want to challenge him to a duel), are completely repulsive and completely infuriating, respectively.  Goodman is so good at description that I actually found myself curling my lip in distaste during the scenes with Lowry.  He's so disgusting.  And Pike - ah, Pike - I understand his motives, but definitely not his methods.  And he's just so annoyingly stubborn.  Grrr.

All in all, I am anxiously awaiting the final book in this trilogy, because, as of now, I am worried for EVERYONE.  And that's the mark of a good writer - leaving your audience with a definite impression, and making them truly care about the characters and the story.

There are readalikes for this title listed on my review of The Dark Days Club, but some others are:
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray - this is the first book in a trilogy, and stars Gemma Doyle, a society girl whose family is shadowed by rumors of scandal.  She is introduced to an otherworldly, mystical order, and must decide whether or not to accept her role in an unfolding battle between good and evil.
A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess - this series features a heroine who discovers she has the ability to do magic, and is rescued from her dire situation by a master sorcerer, who takes her to train with other potential sorcerers.  Henrietta must learn to navigate the magical world, and figure out who are her friends and who are her enemies before London is destroyed.

A review post featuring Leigh Bardugo's  Shadow and Bone, and one focusing on some "writing" things on the horizon!


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