Saturday 18 April 2015
#CBR7 Book 38: "Night of a Thousand Stars" by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: 4.5 stars
Penelope "Poppy" Hammond flees her high society wedding with the aid of a charming curate calling himself Sebastian Cantrip and persuades him to drive her to the little village in Devon where her estranged father lives. Poppy's mother, wealthy American stepfather and a large amount of the wedding guests, including Poppy's jilted fiancee follow, up in arms about the scandal she's caused. Poppy's mind is not to be changed, however, she knows she and Gerald are a poor match and that life as a future Viscountess is going to bore her socks off.
Poppy's father, the eccentric painter Plum March, allows her to stay with him in his cottage until she makes up her mind about what she wants for her future. After about a month of cooling her heels and pondering her future, Poppy ventures back into London to thank the kind Mr. Cantrip, and discovers that he has disappeared without a trace. She's worried he is in danger, and determines to find him and aid him. Accompanied by her formidable ladies' maid, Masterman, Poppy is able to secure a position as secretary to an old colonel travelling to Damascus, where she's pretty sure Sebastian has gone. Once they get there, it is clear that Sebastian (whose name isn't Cantrip at all) is absolutely involved in some dangerous activities, and before Poppy knows it, she's fleeing ruthless, hunting an ancient treasure in the desert and feeling more alive than she ever dreamed.
Night of a Thousand Stars is set in the 1920s and is very loosely connected to Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey books. Poppy is the daughter of Eglamour "Plum" March, one of Julia's brothers (who appears as a supporting character in at least one of her novels. As a long time reader of those books, I found it a very amusing conceit that the Victorian mysteries actually appear here as Lady Julia's journals, which Poppy read over the course of the novel. It was fun to discover a little bit about what happens to Julia and Brisbane after the end of their own series, and delightful to see what the new generations of Marches are getting up to.
Poppy, who fairly early on in the novel, starts using her father's name again, never really fit into the mould her proper and ambitious mother wanted to shape her into. While she's fond of her American stepfather and her half-siblings, she's always felt like the odd one out and once she reunites with her father, he doesn't seem the slightest bit surprised, as the Marches never do what society expects them to. He encourages rather than tries to dampen her eccentricities and fully supports her need to find adventure. When she discovers that the dashing Sebastian has disappeared on an unspecified journey to the Holy Land in a hurry, she is convinced he must be in trouble. She gains passage on a ship, accompanying the charming old Colonel Archainbaud as his secretary, fending off the advances of his handsome valet, Hugh Talbot, during the journey. In Damascus, she also attracts the attention of a French comte, without being very impressed with either man.
It's not surprising that several men in the story find Poppy so attractive, although it also becomes clear that some of them are trying to charm her due to more nefarious reasons. She's brave, resourceful, rather stubborn at times and very loyal to her friends. While she only met Sebastian briefly, he did help her out of a very awkward situation and even allowed himself to be punched by her fiancee. She's convinced he is in danger, and wants to help him, even though it's unclear exactly what, except perhaps her wits, she would use in such a rescue operation. Despite several warnings in Damascus that she may be in danger, she doggedly refuses to leave, and when she's finally united with Sebastian again, he is almost unrecognisable as the quiet English curate, disguised as a native Bedouin warrior. She discovers that Sebastian was involved in espionage during the war, spent some time in a Turkish prison and certainly didn't need an impulsive young society woman to rescue him from anything.
The two of them flee murder charges, trying to locate a treasure hoard in the desert before the murderous villains who framed them find it. Disguised as Sebastian's wife, Poppy is intrigued by how different he is from the man she'd first imagined. Even though all evidence points to the contrary, Poppy keeps underestimating Sebastian, thinking he's just as in over his head as she is. It isn't until the very end of their eventful desert adventure that she discovers just how wrong she's been, and discovers the truth not just about him, but about how she came to be on the journey in the first place.
This book was an utter delight to read, and in many ways reminded me of some of my favourite Agatha Christie novels, where there is always a romantic subplot as well as the murder mystery. Books like The Man in the Brown Suit, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and They Came to Baghdad. Also the early Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters, like Crocodile on the Sandbank. While the romance is slow burning, I'm not spoiling anything when I reveal that Poppy and Sebastian are clearly made for each other. They have tremendous banter all the way through the book and there is a very good reason why Sebastian refuses to act on his attraction to Poppy. The romance has a very satisfying ending eventually, but I am deducting half a star, as I would have loved some more action between Poppy and Sebastian over the course of the book.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.