Book review: The Dark Days Club, Alison Goodman

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

If you have not acquired a copy of The Dark Days Clubplease drop whatever you are doing and race, do not dally, to your local independent bookstore and get a copy. Better yet, demand that they send someone (perhaps the mail carrier) over with a copy posthaste. You may consume it in audiobook, ebook, or physical format. Once acquired, do not allow it to leave your hand until you are finished. I’ll wait. The internet will wait. Your life will wait. Sink deep into these 496 pages and savor every single one of them, because when you are done, you will want the next book in the series, and it is not here yet, and you will be bereft.

Now that you’re finished, let’s return to the matter at hand: Discussing Alison Goodman’s The Dark Days Club, which is the most delicious frothy yet complicated entry into the Regency genre (well, sort of, it’s also fantasy) that I’ve ever read. I’ve seen it compared to lots of things, and Gail Carriger’s work is perhaps the best match. A robust female heroine defies the norms of society and her times, gets entangled in inappropriate things, both battles and embraces the supernatural world, falls in love, discovers surprises in the higher echelons of power, and looks quite good doing it, because everyone should come equipped with a full array of frocks and jewels for every occasion. If they’re into that sort of thing.

Lady Helen Wrexhall lives in the home of her uncle, under the shadow of her mother’s legacy — both her parents were lost at sea, but not before her mum was accused of treason. Lady Helen is preparing for her presentation to the Queen while scoping out potential opportunities for escaping the chains of marriage, and that’s when everything starts to fall apart, because one of the housemaids goes missing, and suddenly she’s plunged into a mysterious world that lies just beyond the one she’s familiar with. She learns that she carries highly unusual powers as she’s enlisted in a fight against the forces of darkness, and while she’s balancing that she’s also expected to be a proper young lady, negotiating a marriage with a high-born man and preparing for life as a respectable wife and member of society.

She wants absolutely none of this, and who can blame her. Navigating Regency society is bad enough for any woman, even those without some complex personal issues. While she finds one of her suitors a perfectly nice man, she has more important things on her mind, like protecting innocent Britons from demons and learning more about who she is and who her parents really were. Her quest is confounded not just by the constraints of society and propriety, but also by her bombastic and dreadful uncle, her meek aunt, and the brother eager to see her settled, ideally as bride to his close friend.

I love Lady Helen, as I assume you did after completing this book as directed. She avoids falling into some of the common one-dimensional ‘strong female character’ traps, instead appearing fully rounded and complicated. Even as she’s canny, focused on treating people of all classes well, imbued with extremely rare powers, and determined to get to the bottom of her family history, she’s also highly conscious of her place in society, the realities of what she faces as a woman in the repressive circles of the upper crust, and the risks she’s taking as she falls in love with a man who carries a heavy stigma of her own. Her rich, multifaceted characterisation owes much to the delightful history of the Regency genre, which is often written off as ‘cheesy romance,’ as though there’s something wrong with romance. The women of Austen and Heyer are delightfully strong, interesting, dynamic people, and Lady Helen follows in their footsteps with aplomb — this is a sharp, funny, assertive book that doesn’t spare punches.

I appreciate that strong worldbuilding doesn’t obtrude or clutter the text, while still functioning in a believable way for the setting  — Goodman has a deft hand with building up characters and the world they live in without needing to clonk readers over the head with it. Her work with careful, thoughtful research shows without being obvious, and so too does her passion for the era and her characters, for getting everyone down with lavish attention to detail and personality. Whether someone is a rival, a friend, or something else entirely, that person is fully realised and complex, a character that pulls the reader in.

I am really in love with books set in this era at the moment, but my ardent adoration and subsequent aggressive promotion of this book to everyone I know isn’t just about something that nestles beautifully into my interests of the moment. It’s just a solidly good book, with a lot of room for exploring the characters and the setting through the rest of the series — obvious setup at the end aside, The Dark Days Club is clearly ripe with material to fit into a larger framework of stories following not just Lady Helen, but the people around her. (What I wouldn’t give for a prequel!) I want to climb inside this book and roll around between its covers for a while, bathing in the deliciousness, and there is a strong possibility that I will sneak into Goodman’s writing room through the steam vents and abscond with her next manuscript.