Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club (Angus & Robertson, 2016), the first volume in a new series by Alison Goodman, is due for publication next year*, but the author kindly threw a launch party in time for Christmas. For those eager for her next work following the New York Times best-sellers Eon and Eona, it was a fine present indeed.
Having covered science fiction, crime (with a slight SFnal twist) and fantasy with equal aplomb in previous works, Goodman now turns to the paranormal with her Dark Days Club.
There is perhaps slightly more explanatory text here – summaries of events, an almost telepathy to show the meaning behind the body language – than I remember from previous outings, but the story, more than 400 pages of it, speeds by at an easy pace, driven by the spark of quick-witted Lady Heroine and the deepening dilemmas in which she finds herself.
How clever to set it in the Regency, for this story is all about veneer and the monsters behind the facade, duty and passion, control and denial. The painting of this period of English history is sensationally wrought, the minutiae of daily life for the Quality (and their window on the lesser classes) effectively grounding the world without dominating it, referencing historical events, people and places, then braiding in the supernatural story.
Lady Helen, our titular heroine, is 18, her parents lost under despairing circumstances, the ward of her uncle and aunt who are devoted to her social climb, that is, marriage. She has some of her mother’s infamous adventurous streak, however, sneaking into the library to read books, so very unladylike. Of course, she has more than that in common with her mother, and soon her fabulous nature as a potential member of the mysterious Dark Days Club is uncovered.
The tension between her attraction to adventure, both romantic and physical, and the pressure to conform to social propriety is deft, perhaps best mirrored in the two suitors for her attention, if not affection, in a socially respectable duke and a lord of some infamy.
This presents the most obvious theme of the story, that “sometimes there is no good choice”. And Lady Helen has some serious choices to make as a demonic world is revealed to her, that and her special place in the fight to contain it. Dark days indeed!
I’m particularly taken with the humour of sidekick and maid Darby, who had me chuckling with an almost Pink Panther scene in which she tests her mistress’s reflexes with thrown objects.
Another element I especially appreciate is the slow reveal, allowing us to know Helen and her Regency world, the privilege and the constraints, as mysteries are bled into the opening chapters and then revealed in line with her growing understanding of the secret war of the Dark Days Club.
This is a world where every choice, every benefit, comes at a cost, and it is this grim reality that helps makes Lady Helen’s story such an enjoyable read.
* addendum: December 14 in Australia, January 16 UK and January 26 US.
This review completes my four-book commitment to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Others were Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin, The Dagger’s Path by Glenda Larke, and The Dangerous Bride by Lee Kofman.