Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 22, 2015

London, 1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

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Lesendes Dienstmädchen in einer
Bibliothek by Edouard John Mentha 
I picked up Deanna Raybourn's A Curious Beginning without reading the jacket description. I'd not heard of the book, I hadn't read any of the early reviews and despite being a self-admitted cover slut, I can honestly say the cover image prompted little if any interest. The improbable exploits of an unladylike lepidopterist might have roused my curiosity if I'd bothered to do my homework, but the truth is that my decision was dictated by past appreciation for Raybourn's signature wit and clever dialogue.

As a heroine, Veronica Speedwell is anything but stereotypic. She flouts convention at every possible turn, but what I liked most is that she lacks the self-righteous indignation so many authors associate with women of independent mind. This is a character who lives on her own terms and does as she pleases. She makes no excuses, offers no apologies and that is all. She's not out to change the world and she isn't positioned on a soapbox to preach the evils of Victorian inequality at Raybourn's audience.

Stoker is equally unrepentant, but far less optimistic and impulsive. Brooding, boorish, and brusque, the knife throwing circus performer turned taxidermist is as atypical as his leading lady. He is brilliant, but I particularly liked how his countenance and demeanor balanced Veronica. For all her exuberance, the woman is an insufferable know-it-all and Stoker's unabashed and often blunt assessment keeps her in check.

Sparks fly, but fire between Stoker and Veronica is slow to burn. The author leaves no doubt that their partnership is leading to something more, but at this point the association is based entirely on playful banter, intellectual rivalry, and mutual admiration. Raybourn is building something authentic here, something that is more convincing than raw carnal attraction.

The narrative itself is packed with both the bizarre and comic, but I can't deny a certain disappointment with regard to how easily the intrigue surrounding Veronica's existence was unravelled. I've read too many novels or watched From Hell too many times, but I caught the scent in the first thirty pages and spent the better part of the next two hundred and fifty watching the cast blunder their way to the same inevitable conclusion.

All things considered, I'd be hard-pressed to recommend A Curious Beginning on the perplexity of its central plot, but I can't say the time I spent with it wasted. Despite its flaws, the quirky content and humorous situational drama tickled my imagination. I'm not likely to jump when the next installment is released, but I definitely plan to continue the series somewhere down the road. 

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“Mrs. Clutterthorpe, I can hardly think of any fate worse than becoming the mother of six. Unless perhaps it were plague, and even then I am persuaded a few disfiguring buboes and possible death would be preferable to motherhood.”
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