Going into this book, there's only one real question you need to be asking yourself: do you want to read about dramatic demon sex tentacles? If your answer is yes (as mine very emphatically was), then this book may eventually be worth the price of admission. If it is not, then there's honestly not much point in picking it up at all.
Written as the first book in a regency adventure fantasy trilogy that is clearly shading towards romance, The Dark Days Club describes the life of Lady Helen Wrexhall, who discovers a secret about herself just as she is about make her debut and a good match—that she is a Reclaimer, one of only eight known, who fights evil demons termed Deceivers. Deceivers, as you may have guessed, are demons who appear as humans and can siphon power from humans to build themselves energy tentacles. Given that the Deceivers number in the thousands, there exists a pact between Deceivers and Reclaimers that ensures peace unless a Deceiver begins to kill people. Much of the book revolves around Lady Helen discovering that she is something called a Grand Reclaimer, a direct inheritor of a previous Reclaimer, usually only born when a Grand Deceiver has arisen as some form of supernatural balancing of scales. Trapped by this knowledge of her Reclaimer duty, Lady Helen has to choose between fighting in this world and the likelihood that this will lead her to ruin as it did her mother, or giving up her powers and abstaining from the fight like a proper well-bred Englishwoman of the ton. Added into this mix is a possible romance with fellow Reclaimer and her guide in this supernatural drama, Lord Carlston, whose dead ex-wife and dubious reputation are all very mysterious and daunting, especially when compared with what seems to be the rather bland safety of the Duke of Selburn's proposal of marriage.
Alison Goodman has clearly done a truly ridiculous amount of research into the time period, as she mentions in her endnotes, and this is something that I would appreciate so much more if she then didn't spend an inordinate amount of time beating me over the head with this knowledge in ways that add nothing to the plot whatsoever. Examples include Helen insisting on detailing out the entirety of a meal to her maid (a full page for no real reason whatsoever), three pages of what felt like an endless description of Helen's dress (Her breasts look like "giant pearls." Giant pearls, I tell you!), and things like:
They passed the dancers: a long row of couples who stood watching as the first lady in line—a flushed brunette with a knowing smile—skipped across to the second gentleman and, clasping his hands, swung with him in a full circle. The dance was a single-figure Juliana, Helen noted, pleased with her quick identification.
As with many of the sections in this book, the urge to scream "why should I care?" at the top of my voice was pretty overwhelming. As a result of these and other asides, to add what Goodman might term era-appropriate texture and for me felt rather like dross, the pace of the book felt really quite hurry-up-and-wait. The first third or so of the book made me want to hurl it (and myself) out of a window, and then at about page 130 the book slapped me in the face with demon sex tentacles and I yowled with glee and proceeded to read the rest of it with renewed hope. And things did get better for a brief period, though once the hilarity of regency demon sex tentacles had worn off, my renewed annoyance with the rest made the reading feel like a slog to the finish line.
The problem the book never quite overcame, though, was the fact that I just couldn't like Lady Helen, who is its most fleshed-out character by far. Literally everyone else is the human equivalent of a cardboard cutout. And it's hard to get through nearly four hundred pages of a book when the person whose voice you're constantly listening to isn't someone you'd want to spend any time with at all. In the space of a single early chapter the book makes clear that Helen is not just any regency lady, she is a good regency lady. She chooses her personal maid, Darcy, in spite of the fact that her larger shape and gracelessness isn't considered quite suitable; she tries to help when an ex-footman, Joseph, is falsely accused of stealing, exonerated, and sacked anyway; she, unlike any other young lady about to attend her debut, will look into the missing maid, Bertha, because if not her then who. She insists she must continue correspondence with her dear friend, Delia, who is ruined by her willingness to run away with a man who then committed suicide (which later is revealed as another Deceiver event)—all of society will turn their face but Helen will not because she is a good person. It feels like the book doesn't trust that I might enjoy Helen if she isn't one step from sainthood and insists on telling me, repeatedly and through the mouths of various characters, how very good Helen is. Reading these early bits felt rather like being beaten about the head with this assertion until I just gave in and accepted that Helen could do no wrong.
Unfortunately, being not particularly keen on that approach and stubborn as a donkey, I immediately refused to like Helen at all. Not even the demon sex tentacles helped there. Some of this is because I refuse to have a narrative force me into anything, and a lot of it is the fact that I enjoy imperfect characters. I often like them far better than perfect ones. One of the major reasons Zen Cho's wonderful Sorcerer to the Crown worked so well for me was the fact that none of those characters were without flaw. They all had issues, had made mistakes and not always confronted them, and these were part of their characters and built into their motivations. I could understand them because I wasn't shown only one side to them. By contrast, the emphasis on Helen's dutiful smartness, quickness, and all-round goodness bored me to tears. That she feels a vague amount of shame for even considering leaving the Reclaimer struggle is rejigged hastily at the book's conclusion into a moment of grand sacrifice where she embraces the "right thing" yet again. The narrative does attempt to justify Helen's strict adherence to rules as a reaction to her mother's ruin, but it does so by insisting she is very rebellious while not having her be particularly rebellious at all.
Worse, perhaps, are the book's attempts to move away from Helen's self-doubting self-obsession. Much in the same style as Helen, Darcy is one-dimensionally good and loyal, though her role as a side character means that we're not privy to any reasons behind this as we are for Helen. Darcy's entire role in the book seems to be to be Helen's stalwart companion for reasons that are never questioned and never explained, and her likely injury or death in the process of protecting her mistress is something that she accepts blithely without any actual pushback. I'm not unaware that most regency drama struggles with navigating or articulating class thanks to its emphasis on the gentry, but this faithful obedience was one step away from slavish. Darcy is literally beaten about the head by another character at one point, and her only concern at that time is Helen's safety. I mention this because it's one thing to suggest that the hierarchy of primary characters versus secondary characters sees the former saved more often at the expense of the latter, but when the entirety of this relationship between these characters is built upon class and presumed duty, the fact that Darcy is willing to potentially die in this scenario for Helen made me deeply uncomfortable because Darcy is not depicted as smart, or quick, or talented as Helen is. All we know is that she is lower class and dutiful. And that's a problem.
In much the same manner, Lord Carlston's man is Quinn, a "tribal" with face tattoos, who speaks a handful of lines and is there solely to be incredibly loyal to Lord Carlston for unexplained reasons. Quinn's depiction is far more problematic than Darcy's because not only is he ridiculously loyal for reasons that the book seems to feel need no explanation, but he's also clearly a person of colour whose power is drawn from his bond with Lord Carlston. Let me clarify: Reclaimers have helpers who ensure that they do not kill themselves or lose their souls in the process of fighting or killing a Deceiver, and the Reclaimer bonds with this helper in a ceremony and shares their strength as a way to make things more equal in a fight between the two. So when I say Quinn's strength is drawn from Lord Carlston, I mean that literally. And no one involved in the creation of this book saw problems with this.
To have these side characters, who play reasonably important roles, have actual reasons beyond blind loyalty would have done far more for me than detailed descriptions of a reading of Lord Byron's poetry or a visit to the symphony (both of which are in this book). It's too easy to suggest that Goodman get points just for trying to be inclusive, or that even her white and upper-class side characters are cardboard cutouts so this isn't about a lack of equality, because that doesn't tackle the main issue here. So much of this book, and regency fiction in general, is bound up in this idea that the working class and people of colour don't exist or have lives outside the colonial notion of loyalty to a white master. They don't get to be complex people with complex motivations (if and when they're represented at all), and that's a very specific kind of erasure that gets wrapped up in the hoopla of historical accuracy when it's pretty much an open fact that colonial histories were amazingly racist and revisionist and shouldn't be trusted on these things anyway. Acknowledging the latter means accepting that the erasure implicit in historical accuracy maybe shouldn't be the grand marker of fantasy historical fiction. The fact that this book takes the step of making women (both Helen and Darcy) physical soldiers in this particular battle and includes demon tentacles, yet falters at the point of imagining that Quinn could have a world beyond Lord Carlston is deeply frustrating. My kingdom for a book where Quinn and Darcy roll their eyes at Helen and Carlston's nonsense and head off on their own adventures!
My issues with Quinn and Darcy's representation aside, The Dark Days Club has many of the same problems for me as Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, which is that I find their protagonists the least interesting part of the book. I enjoy the idea that research has gone into these books and I enjoy the attention to detail, but I also yearn for ladies with sass and men who are confused by them, and all the attendant terrible drama of them clashing and making up. The addition of fantasy worldbuilding is wonderful but if (as is the case here) the way it plays out is entirely about doing one's duty, whether to the world or to English society, my interest is negligible. I want capers and capriciousness and cavorting and I'm struggling to think of a word here with c that isn't caipiroskas but those'll do as well! Something grand, I think, that is lacking in this book for all that it's peppered with the grand names of Queen Charlotte and the Prince Regent, Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb, William Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Napoleon Bonaparte, and more. I want more about the characters than the era they're from or parties they attended back then. Also, I need more reason to invest in a romance than Helen's notion of Lord Carlston, which somehow seems to boil down to "dark and mysterious, and possibly killed his wife but we're not sure (but he seems okay so maybe she deserved it)," which should send any sensible person running for the hills, especially since at the end of the book we're still not sure what happened to said wife. To reiterate: his actual entire "dark mystery" ethos is that he maybe killed his wife for unexplained "reasons." Good lord. Helen in lust clearly has all the common sense of a cantaloupe. I suspect her other beau, Duke Selburn, will eventually be the Grand Deceiver because that scenario is the only thing worse or more predictable than Carlston's murderous brooding manpain right now.
In the end, it really depends on what you go into a book for. If what you're looking for is action, trashy thrills, and characters you can really feel for, this book didn't do that for me. However, I can now say that I have read about regency sex tentacles, and for that I will always be grateful.
Based in India, Samira spends most of her time explaining Nicolas Cage movies to her father and making bad puns. In her everyday life, she’s an academic. At night, she watches terrible TV and posts blurry pictures of her cat. It’s a life.
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