Thursday 16 November 2017

#CBR9 Book 98: "A Curious Beginning" by Deanna Raybourn

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Orphaned Veronica Speedwell has just buried the last of the two spinster aunts who raised her. She is looking forward to making her own way in the world now, exploring the world while catching butterflies, and possibly allowing herself a dalliance or two with a dashing foreign gentleman. She is shocked to discover an intruder in her home and is shortly thereafter approached by a distraught German baron who insists he has information about her past, and the she is in terrible danger. While Veronica is pretty sure the man is exaggerating his claims, she happily accepts his offer of escorting her to London.

When the baron and Veronica arrive in London, she is promptly deposited in the rather ramshackle warehouse where an associate of the baron's, known only as Stoker, performs his own scientific endeavours, he's a taxidermist. Stoker appears to owe the baron a debt of honour and while he's not happy about it, has to promise to keep Veronica safe. Before she finds out any more clues about her parentage or really has a chance to get settled with her rather taciturn and eccentric new host, they discover that the baron has been murdered.

Stoker believes Veronica is the reason the baron was killed, and therefore refuses to let her out of his sight while they go on the run (Stoker is a prime suspect in the murder) and try to figure out exactly why the baron was killed and by whom, so that Stoker can clear his name and Veronica can (hopefully) discover more about her mysterious past (and why someone might kill to ensure it stays hidden).

While the last few books in the Lady Julia Grey mysteries get a bit less exciting, the three first in that series are still very enjoyable and a fun read. I am also very fond of Ms. Raybourn's three loosely inter-connected romantic adventure/mysteries set in the 1920s, with determined young heroines and the men who fall for them. It's impossible not to draw comparisons between the Lady Julia books and this new series, about Veronica Speedwell, as both are mysteries set in the late Victorian era, with female protagonists (and a dark and broody love interest).

While Lady Julia is the daughter of an Earl and was raised to privilege, Veronica Speedwell is an orphan of unknown parentage, who has always assumed she was illegitimate. She was raised by two rather strict ladies, and they never stayed too long in one place. Veronica is a natural scientist and passionate lepidopterist. Even though it distressed her aunts, she has been on several expeditions around the world and while she refuses to indulge in romantic affairs while within the borders of Britain, she's clearly almost anachronistically open in her attitudes to sex and has had several lovers while abroad on her expeditions. In contrast, Stoker, who we discover is of noble birth, but disgraced because of all manner of dark things in his past (many of which will likely be revealed in later books, as we are clearly just scratching the surface of all his angst in this book) is rather proper, much more traditionally Victorian and rather shocked by Veronica's brazen attitude.

Parts of the book is a road trip of sorts, while they are forced to go on the run together and end up with a travelling circus, posing as newlyweds. The Lady Julia books had a very slow build-up of the romantic relationship between the two main characters, not really giving the readers what they truly wanted until towards the end of the third book of the series and she's clearly going to do something similar here. While I'm all for a long, slow burn if it's done well, it frustrated me that while there is clearly all manner of unresolved attraction between Veronica and Stoker, they don't even kiss over the course of the story. A slow burn is all well and good, but it's nice to have something to whet the appetite, so to speak.

I don't entirely know if I think Veronica is a bit too forward, opinionated and open-minded for a Victorian heroine. I liked Stoker and his moodiness, and him being a natural historian and taxidermist is pretty cool. It's hinted that he has rather the melodramatic past, and I just hope that nothing too silly is revealed in the books to come. There is also the fact that the murder mystery after a while most certainly takes second place to the search for Veronica's background, and I'm really not all that enthused about the truths that were revealed. Not sure how much of a part it's going to play in future books, I'm hoping it doesn't become a major thing.

A promising start to a new series. I like Raybourn's writing and will happily support her as long as she entertains me.

Judging a book by its cover: I like the beautiful outfit that the cover model is wearing, the red is certainly very eye-catching and seems extremely like something our heroine would actually wear. I'm not entirely sure what I think of the rest of the background, with the strange lighting making the houses appear odd colours and all the smoke in the background (although that at least may have some basis in the plot). Still, the red-clad figure in the foreground catches the eye, and that probably helps bring in readers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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