by Alyxandra Harvey, historical/paranormal (2011)
Bloomsbury, £6.99, ISBN 978-1-4088-1131-3
First things first: Haunting Violet is not part of Alyxandra Harvey's series The Drake Chronicles, so adjust your expectations accordingly. This is actually a historical paranormal romp set in London in the late 19th century, when everyone then was crazy about seances and ghosts. There are ghosts here, but not a single vampire, sorry.
Violet Willoughby, our young heroine, knows that she is a fraud. She and Colin, a young man picked up from the streets, work as her mother's accomplices in carrying out seances that manage to net them a sizable number of clients among the rich and the blue-blooded people of London. They are now comfortably well off thanks to an inheritance left by a client, but Violet's mother has bigger plans. If Violet can get Mr Xavier Trethewey to propose, they will all be secure in their position in society. Violet's mother was a maid who once dallied with a nobleman, but she has since then reinvented herself as a genteel widow with psychic abilities. Violet always feels uncomfortable with the deception despite the fact that this deception has given her a pretty good life.
In this story, Violet, her mother, and Colin travel to the estate of Lord Jasper to impress the skeptical earl about their good relationships with ghosts. Xavier will also be there, of course. As the days pass, however, Violet realizes that she can see ghosts for real. And one of these ghosts, a recently drowned young lady, seems to be trying to tell Violet something. Perhaps that poor darling didn't accidentally drown, but was instead murdered?
Haunting Violet is a surprising departure from the author's previous books. For one, this is a sober Gothic-like tale of murder and mystery, spiced up with ghosts and various creepy moments. There aren't any flippant sassy one-liners here, I'm afraid. Having said that, the story is a pretty interesting one as it is well executed with good momentum build-up and a dramatic pay-off to all that build-up. I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer as well as the motive of murder early on, but the lack of surprises in the denouement doesn't really affect my pleasure. The engaging narrative and atmosphere make up for that very nicely.
However, I have to point out that Violet is too passive a heroine for her own good. All she does here is to act dour and complain about how she doesn't like this, that, and everything. The secondary characters are the ones who push the plot along. Just like how she is a conduit for the ghosts, she is also a mere conduit here. She acts as the reader's conduit to the story, and that's about it. If she gets her happy ending, it's because things fall into place nicely for her. It's not like she actually does anything proactively to earn her happy ending. Amusingly, the author follows here the formula of the self-centered teenage heroine here by having any woman who is a challenge to Violet's authority as the most special girl in the universe to be a villain. Violet is so obviously surrounded by either adoring girls who will never dream of usurping Violet's position or adoring men who just know how special Violet is, it's as if the author is heavily pandering to the teenage reader's vicarious need to be the only female object of adoration in every man's existence.
Violet's mother is an interesting character. From Violet's self-absorbed point of view, her mother is a monster as much as a rival for men's affections. But Ms Harvey also allows me, the reader, to get an impression that, for all of Celeste's self-absorbed pettiness, she has actually done pretty well in giving Violet a pretty good life. Violet is constantly complaining about how to carry out her mother's deceptions and how annoying it is that men keep lusting after her mother, and how disgusting it is that Celeste keeps encouraging them. At the same time, I have to wonder whether Violet will realize that those pretty dresses that she loves do not grow on trees. When you are born poor, you either die or you adapt and survive even if it means doing unpleasant things. Violet doesn't seem to get this even by the last page, but Ms Harvey lets her readers know, through Celeste's outbursts and her admittedly not-very-maternal advice to Violet, that this is indeed the case where Celeste is concerned. Indeed, one of my favorite moments is when Violet meets her biological father and naturally hopes that he will love her forever and ever and take her away from her mother. Let's just say that this is not the case, heh.
Violet is also not a particularly smart character. I mean, a big part of her desire to go along and marry Xavier is so that she can marry into the upper class... and get away from the upper class women who keep sneering and making fun of her. Huh? As I've said, the secondary characters, except Colin, are the ones who carry the story as well as Violet to the ending line. Colin, by the way, is such an underwritten character that his grand love for Violet has me rolling up my eyes. I know Violet and Colin are meant to be because this is clearly expected to happen from the first page, but Colin spends more time sneering at Violet, complaining that she's too good for him, and spying on her than actually interacting with her in a more romantic manner.
Haunting Violet is therefore one of those odd stories where the weakest links are the main characters. And yet, the story manages to be an entertaining and even chilling read despite these characters. If this book is going to spawn a series, both Violet and Colin need to get a personality quickly.
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