by Lydia Joyce, historical (2005)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21483-8
While I am reading Lydia Joyce's exquisitely-written The Veil Of Night, I often find myself turning to the copyright page because a part of me is convinced that this is Karen Ranney writing under a pseudonym. I'm not saying that these two authors are similar, but Karen Ranney is a master at creating finely-wrought and detailed character introspection and Lydia Joyce demonstrates in this book that she can last for a few rounds if we ever get those two authors in a metaphorical wrestling ring or something.
This story can be agonizingly slow-moving and we only have two main characters with only a maid and the housekeeper showing up now and then to intrude into the private erotic paradise our main characters have created for themselves, but Ms Joyce has such a deft hand at detailing every minutiae in the gradual developing relationship of the two main characters that I am hardly bored. In fact, I can't put this book down even if I try. Karen Ranney is the only other author who can come up with such stories, hence my instinctive comparison of Ms Joyce to that author.
The story is simple: it's 1864 and Victoria Wakerfield travels to the dark Gothic manor of one appropriately named Byron Stratford, the Duke of Raeburn, to negotiate the huge debts that her brother has racked up with Byron. Byron wants revenge on Jack, Victoria's brother, over a woman that Jack stole from Byron, but when Victoria points out to Byron that Jack won't care one way or the other should Byron use Victoria as a pawn in his game with Jack, Byron decides to insist that Victoria must spend a week in his company - and this also includes sharing his bed - if she wants him to cancel Jack's debts. This story is obviously patterned after Beauty And The Beast and I tell myself I'm out of here should a singing teapot and a dancing candlestick show up next.
At 32 and therefore genuinely on the shelf, Victoria doesn't see what she has to lose as long as they are both discreet. She is also quite attracted to this fellow and she is a pragmatic woman, so she surprises him by accepting his offer and asking for a contract to be drawn up. You know how these stories tend to go, by the end of the week, they will both be like walking barefoot on broken glass as they convince themselves that they can walk away from each other.
The character study in this story is superbly done. Both characters could have been generic archetypes under any other circumstances, but here Ms Joyce draws me into the heads of these characters and they are anything but stereotypical. The bonus is that Victoria is really a smart and practical woman who tries so hard to be pragmatic. The following illustrates her personality very well:
Raeburn's mouth creased in a frown, and he began to shake his head. But then he paused, seeming to catch himself, and shrugged. "Perhaps. Are you always so direct, your ladyship?" His tone was teasing but not without some exasperation. "It seems that not even one's closest and most precious delusions are safe when you are nigh."
Victoria smiled thinly. "I am better at self-scrutiny than self-pity, I fear, and I tend to extend it to others. I've lost the habit of mercy, if I ever had it."
"And forgiveness?" Raeburn's stare was suddenly too perceptive.
Victoria shook it off. "There is no one to forgive. If I bleed, then I put my hand in the way of the knife." She leveled a pointed look at the duke. "I am rarely cut twice."
However, the hero is a bit of a let-down. Byron is 34 or 32, depending on what page I am reading. Even when I make allowances for his disease (I'm not telling what it is, but it explains his whole brooding personality) and the fact that pampered noblemen can be a spoiled and immature lot given the privileges that come with their titles, he still comes off as an unnecessarily melodramatic little kid who is quite unsporting when it comes to losing girlfriends to other guys. His Big Secret, when revealed, is laughably minor compared to his whole "Shadows! Darkness! All that is missing is my cape and the Phantom of the Opera mask!" act. I can't help thinking that were this fellow living today, he'd be writing "profound" poetries full of the words "anguish", "darkness", "shadows", and "despair" on his MySpace when he's not impressing high school girls by fronting a Ramones-wannabe emo rock group.
Also, I feel that the relationship has come to a pinnacle at about two-thirds into the story and the author has to let the characters do something because everything else will be repetitious psychobabble that has been covered in the last hundred plus pages. But the author only brings on some drama very late in the story, thus making the later parts of the story repetitious and draggy to read.
But on the whole, The Veils Of Night is a most noteworthy debut. It has some rough edges and the hero can be too overblown at times. But this is nonetheless a most exquisite read due to the intimate interplay between the main characters and the often fascinating character study taking place in the story. I'll be reading more of this author, most assuredly.
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