Review: The Dark Days Club (Lady Helen #1) by Alison Goodman

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Hardcover, 496 pages
Expected publication: January 26th 2016 by Razorbill
Source: Publisher

Another man stepped out from the undergrowth. This time, Helen recognized the tall lean figure. He waited for them to approach, arms folded across the front capes of his great-coat. He did not wear a hat, and the light from the lamp above him carved the planes of his face into hard angles and silvered the scar at his temple. If she only had one word to describe him, Helen decided as she drew closer, it would be commanding. Or enigmatic. Or disturbing. Which, of course, was three words. Lord Carlston was not a man to be contained, even in adjectives.

I have been waiting for this book ever since I found out that Goodman was writing it. I can’t say that I had any expectations of it other than it be good because though I have read three other titles Goodman has written, her styles have varied with each genre. She wrote my Eon/Eona, one of my favourite duologies, and Singing the Dog Star Blues which I only read and adored last month. Both works (counting the duology as one) are written differently and since The Dark Days Club is a different genre altogether, I didn’t know what to expect. (Singing the Dog Star Blues is sci fi, Eon/Eona is high fantasy, and The Dark Days Club is fantastical realism.)

It is difficult to give a fitting synopsis so let’s see what the official back copy says:

London, April 1812. On the eve of 18-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall’s presentation to the Queen, one of her family’s housemaids disappears–and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his lingering eyes? And will her intelligence and headstrong curiosity wind up leading them into a death trap?

Hmm. The back copy doesn’t really tell you a lot, does it? Also don’t dwell on that ‘lingering eyes’ too much; romance is very much a subplot (and at this point, a slight one) in the novel though I have a feeling it will be developed satisfactorily later on. Anyway, I have a great many things to say about this novel so let’s jump into it.

First, let’s talk about Lady Helen, the  protagonist of the trilogy. I like her. A lot. However, she also frustrated me a great deal and I think this is due largely to her being a product of her times (the Regency period) while I am very much a modern woman. (I was going to say child but you know…those days are past). Lady Helen has a niggling sense  she is somehow different from every other female of her acquaintance. She has this thirst for knowledge and action that she has to hide from her aunt and uncle, (especially her uncle, more on him later). Her mother and father died in disgrace and her mother is especially condemned by all due to talk about her treasonous activities at the time of her death. Apparently she betrayed England and though the obscurity around her mysterious death is cleared up later in the novel, she is very much a person not to be mentioned in the household Lady Helen has grown up in. Her aunt often despairs that Lady Helen will turn out just like her mother and though Helen denies it, she has this sense, this feeling that there is more to her than she can articulate.

She manifests certain powers such as strength, prognostication, acute hearing, and agility that point to her belonging to a certain cadre of people who apparently belong to something called The Dark Days Club. These people (or Reclaimers as they are called) and others who assist them indirectly have one purpose: to keep the Deceivers at bay. The Deceivers are…demons I suppose you can call them who have human shape and walk among humans, feeding on human lives and leaving bits of their darkness in human bodies. It is the job of people who belong to The Dark Days Club to keep humanity from being conquered by these Deceivers.

When we meet Helen she is practicing to be presented to the Queen, a big deal in those days. When Lord Carlston (who seems to be much older than her though age is never explicitly mentioned) marches into her life and turns it upside down, Helen is reasonably upset. Her actions, though understandable, frustrate me because unlike her I don’t want a normal life. She is asked to make a decision that will ultimately decide how the rest of her life plays out and at first I was not at all pleased with what she chose but well…that’d be a spoiler.

The wonderful thing about this book is how well researched it is. Goodman brings the Regency England to life in the pages of this book. Did you ever wonder how women relieved themselves while waiting in line to be presented to the Queen? Well, fear not, your curiousity will be appeased in this novel. In her author’s note, Goodman reveals the extent of her research and I must say that the skill with which she has woven said research into the novel impresses me because it is very smoothly done. There is a flow to the incorporation of research material into the narrative that’s natural. There are no instances of info dumping that would be common at the hands of a less skillful writer.

The plotting, too, is tremendously well done. The pace does meander at points and the novel does linger at points but I forgave it because this novel is largely dedicated to establishing the world and the central conflict. I appreciated how seamlessly the plight of women in the society is approached. While nothing is ever said explicitly, the subtext paints rather baldly how women, in this case, high class women, are subject completely to the whims of their male folk, even to the extent of requiring permission to send a letter. As I mentioned before, Helen’s uncle is the most odious man in existence and his callousness and treatment of Helen makes me wish he was real so I could punch him. Readers are shown and not told how women are treated and I appreciated the subtlety with which this was done.

Carlston is an interesting character and not one you would peg as a love interest in a novel directed primarily toward a YA audience. For one, he is not the young handsome type. He is cynical, jaded, and his motives are not at all pure. He is still very much of an ambiguous character at the end of book one and that is fine with me because there are lots of other things to cover such as who the Grand Deceiver is.

The Dark Days Club is a book you will read more than once. The first time you read it for the entertainment, then again to figure out the details and complexities you might have missed the first time around and then again to enjoy the construction of the characters and the layered narrative. Would I recommend this book? I would but I would also attach a warning that this is not a happy romp and that you ought not to expect something akin to a historical romance novel because if you do you will be disappointed. The Dark Days Club asks leads Helen to a cliff and asks her to make a choice: she can jump off or she can return to safety. And it is in the choice she makes that we see her story take shape. I, for one, will find the wait for the sequel interminable.