“In the sun-warmed quiet of her uncle’s library, Lady Helen Wrexhall spread the skirt of her muslin morning gown and sank into the deep curtsy required for Royal presentation: back held straight, head slightly bowed, left knee bent so low, it nearly touched the floor.”
We join Lady Helen Wrexhall, our plucky heroine, on the eve of her official presentation to the the Queen’s court, i.e. her debut in “society” in case you’re not down with the Regency speak. (Even if you aren’t, there’s a brief introduction to the climate of the time, and by brief I mean 3/4 of a page so don’t worry if you know nothing about this era.) According to society’s rules for women, Helen should have a head full of manners and appropriate small talk, and her main goal should be to find a suitable husband. However, Helen is no normal society girl; she has always had special abilities that her adoptive parents (she’s an orphan of course), her harsh and restrictive uncle and her doting yet politely ambitious aunt, have urged her to keep hidden. BUT THEN! A maid in her household goes missing, and through her pokings and proddings to find the truth of this disappearance she becomes involved with the scandalous Lord Carlston, a man whose reputation is enough to make any lady blush. Or go pale. Do you blush or go pale when you learn someone is suspected of murder? I’m not sure. Anyways, Carlston drops some hints that he knows what’s up with her abilities and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle” she’s casually introduced to a secret demon-hunting society called The Dark Days Club, and if you want to know more you’ll have to read this book, which you probably should because it is SO MUCH FUN.
I’ve been waiting for Alison Goodman to write a new book for basically my entire life, ever since I finished reading her wonderful Eon / Eona duo. When I found out that The Dark Days Club was a Regency romance plus demon hunting, I was like, NO FUCKING WAY THAT SOUNDS LIKE THE BEST THING. And it is. It is the best thing.
In many ways, The Dark Days Club has a lot of the trappings of familiar stories we know and love. We have a young woman of mysterious origins who is something more than your everyday human bean; we have our prophesied chosen one grappling with her destiny, and whether she actually wants to be special or would prefer a life of normalcy and acceptance; we have our heroine in a hoop skirt trying to choose between what is safe and easy and what is unknown, dangerous, and exciting, both in terms of romance and of life in general. These plot elements are well-worn tropes because they are stories that never lose their resonance; no matter how many times we meet a Harry Potter or a Buffy Summers or a Luke Skywalker and know them for who they are, their stories never seem to get old. That is, they don’t seem to get old if they’re told in a fresh and juicy way, and fortunately for me (and the world!) Alison Goodman has managed to do just that. I guess we can tattoo in the “Hero’s Journey” right underneath “hope” in that very short list of things that spring eternal.
The Dark Days Club is almost immediately gripping, a darkly absorptive delight from start to finish. I started reading it a couple days before a cross-country flight, and after reading about fifty pages I realized I had to stall myself because it had the makings of the perfect airplane book. My instincts were right, because if you exclude a two-hour open-mouthed nap in which I awoke to find my neighbor awkwardly trying to pass me to while returning from the bathroom (HE CLIMBED OVER ME AND I DIDN’T EVEN WAKE UP WHAT THE HELL), I turned those pages from take-off to landing.
Helen is a sympathetic protagonist who navigates the morally murky world of the Dark Days Club in a believable way. The clash between her reluctance to give herself totally to this mysterious society and her desire to retain the elements that make her special was one of my favorite elements of her story. I can’t give too many details here without spoiling a whole lot of things, but suffice to say that I loved how Goodman focused on her attachment to those parts of her powers that influence her character, rather than the physical gifts, when dealing with Helen’s inner turmoil. The sense of empowerment her strength gives her is tangible, but when it comes down to it it’s her intelligence, wit, and spirit that she is unready to sacrifice in order to live the placid life of a society woman. She lives in a time when to even want something more than elegant tranquility is salacious; Helen’s only hope of living a secretly remarkable and “free” life is through having super powers that could ultimately destroy her. If that isn’t a comment on the heavily restricted lives of women at that time, I don’t know what is, and it is this kind of story-crafting that makes Alison Goodman such a fun fantasy writer.
While there are some who might think that The Dark Days Club gets off to a sluggish start due to the fact that things don’t get terribly juicy til almost 200 pages in, I had no problem whatsoever with the pacing. I enjoyed the experience of immersing myself in Goodman’s intricate and unique world building and magical systems, and the slower pacing in the beginning allowed me to luxuriate in my slowly developing sense of familiarity with this world. Even though events don’t start to roll at a furious clip til later on in the novel, Goodman’s plotting is taut enough to maintain forward-moving tension.
There is a part of me that wishes the Watcher to Helen’s Buffy could have been a woman so that her education in all things Dark Days Club didn’t feel so occasionally mansplainy, but I do love the slow-burn romance between Helen and Carlston so I ultimately I am OK with this dynamic, because let’s be real: who DIDN’T want Giles and Buffy to make out at least once? My only other real issue is that the second book isn’t out yet. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to wait another year or whatever, but I guess I’ll have to.
Bottom line: come for the regency era demon-hunting and stay for the feminist undertones and on-point character development, because this is the most bookish fun I’ve had so far this year.
For music, let’s do Danzig’s “Am I Demon?” because why not.