March 2008, European Historical Romance (Victorian England)
Signet Eclipse, $6.99, 284 pages, Amazon ASIN 045122342X
Shadows of the Night starts out as one kind of book and ends as something far different. Unfortunately, the result is an unhappy hybrid.
The first third of the book is promising. The author takes a couple we’ve all met before – the perfect aristocrat undertaking a cold-blooded marriage with a well-bred young society maiden – and dissects their relationship in an interesting and unexpected way. The hero, Colin Radcliffe, discovers to his great surprise that pain makes him feel alive, both sexually and otherwise. Fern, raised to be a wife to a man such as Colin and completely sexually naïve, is believably flummoxed and just as believably stimulated by what transpires between them. Mild S and M is an interesting device not often used in mainstream historical romance and I settled down to enjoy the rest of the book.
At that point, however, the author switches gears abruptly. Fern and Colin cut short their honeymoon in Brighton and arrive at the manor house he has owned for some years but never before visited. Colin chooses to travel there for two reasons: The remote location will provide an ideal venue to explore the shattering discovery he’s just made about himself, while also allowing him to investigate what he believes to be embezzlement by the manor’s steward.
Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, Venus in Furs turns into Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Old Manor. What with mysterious writing on the wall, mysterious letters, and mysterious utterances from the mysterious locals, I found myself wondering when Bess and George were going to make an appearance. Not that Colin is any Ned Nickerson, but the mystery plot simply isn’t very interesting and the shift in tone is undeniably startling – and disappointing.
Frankly, I had another problem with the book as well. I’ve enjoyed Lydia Joyce’s prose style before and it’s fair to say that her adult and finely tuned period voice is on full display in those intriguing early pages. Still, on occasion the author goes a bit too far in attempting to…well, shall I say, make use of some fancy words. A particularly telling example is found on page 10 when Fern is described as wearing a “Zouave” jacket. Okay, that stopped me. I’d never heard the word before, so promptly went to Dictionary.com and Wikipedia, only to find myself even more puzzled when both the available definitions made absolutely no sense. What an Algerian military unit in the French army or soldiers adopting the same form of dress have to do with Fern’s going-away jacket eludes me. Using Google's "image" feature does show a jacket design that looks familiar, but my guess is that most modern readers will be pulled out of the story as I was as they try to figure out just what a "Zouave" jacket is - and that's never a good thing.
Still, I did find the first third in which the author effectively uses Colin’s desire for pain as a device to strip away the conventions of society intriguing enough to offer a qualified recommendation. The author has great potential as a writer, as she certainly proved before with the superb Music of the Night. I'd love to read a book by that Lydia Joyce again.
-- Sandy Coleman
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