[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]
3,5 stars. A bit slow, but I realised I didn't mind this: mostly it was due to the depiction of Regency Era daily life for a young noblewoman debuting in society, and considering that this was one of the stakes in the narrative, it felt appropriate.
In 1812 London, with London wary about the advance of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe, Lady Helen Wrexhall is coming of age under the watchful eye of her aunt and uncle, who brought her and her brother up after their parents drowned at sea. While Helen's life seems perfect in many ways considering the times and her place in society (she has, after all, a title, fame, and money), her family's history keeps casting a shadow on her reputation: her mother was rumoured to be a traitor to the crown, and because of that “stain”, it is of the utmost importance that she remains a proper lady in all circumstances. And “proper lady” involves many things that she is not, and not so many things that she is—that is, full of wit and energy, and eager to learn (she is skilled in Latin and natural philosophy, among other things... all matters that were tolerated when she was a “girl”, but won't fit a “grown-up woman”).
The writing style in general was fluid and the descriptions pleasant. A great deal of the narrative deals with the dichotomy in Helen's life. She tries to conform to what her aunt and uncle expect from her, but with a certain degree of unease: should she shun her mother like her uncle demands her to, publicly denouncing her as a traitor, or keep her head high and remember the loving mother she only for the first eight years of her life? And all the while, she discovers more and more troubling truths about the world she's always taken for granted. Truths involving a dark and dashing young lord rumoured to have murdered his wife, a group of people with noble and less noble motives, and perhaps also her mother's activities.
I liked Helen in general: headstrong but not too stupid to live; willing to discover the truth but also frightened by it and trying to understand what she really wanted (and wanted to do);doing what she could to fit in yet frustrated by all the limitations placed upon her both by society and by her family. Her relationship with Darby was strong, a beautiful budding friendship rather than a simple maid-and-lady relationship, with mutual respect and trust.
The supernatural aspect is fairly “easy” and traditional—creatures living hidden amidst humans, feeding upon them, vs. a group of men and women dedicated to fighting them—but all in all, it worked, and it brought enough dark elements and secrets to keep me entertained and interested. Obviously enough, Helen finds herself embroiled into their activities, and torn between her perceived duties as a lady and her perceived duties regarding those truths she uncovered. Trifling matters? Perhaps, but to be expected in relationship to her social position. Balancing supernatural activities in secret when you're still dependent on a male parent (who also controls all your money and watches you to make sure you're not going to turn “evil” like your mother)... Well, it's not so easy, and more is at stake than just being grounded for a few days. Helen's struggles to come to terms with what *she* wanted to do—she, not her uncle, or her brother, or her aunt, or Carlston, or even her mother—felt true, and highlighted the general struggles of other women of that era: does one have to remain stuck in a role defined by others, or can she hope to decide on her own life?
I got a bit tired of the overall slowness (and some info-dumping) around the middle of the novel, to be honest—although it fortunately picked up in the last part, there were some places where I wished the plot would move faster, or that the action scenes were more intense (Helen wasn't exactly a fighter in those, and her being a spectator rather than an actor also impeded the narrative's rhythm). The descriptions and everyday life would likely be good for a reader wanting to read about those, but not so much if one is in another mood.
I also found that other characters weren't as fleshed out as Helen, and I wish I could have gotten to know them better. In a way, I'm glad that the romance part was far from being a huge subplot, because I would've needed to feel more about Carlston for that.
All in all I liked this story and will gladly pick the next volume... although I hope its rhythm will be a bit faster.