Bitchery, I have a conundrum. I loved this book, then I hated this book, then I softened, and now I don’t know how I feel.
First, the parts I loved:
In its favour, we have a wonderful heroine in Miss Elizabeth Black, the headmistress of a school for middle-class girls in Victorian London. However, Elizabeth has more strings to her bow than the general public realise. Not only does she write ‘high brow’ silver spoon novels, but she also writes… GASP… penny dreadfuls published under the nom de plume Mr King.
Also, in its favour, we have a wonderful hero in Mr Fletcher Walker, a street urchin, who through luck and endeavour has become a penny dreadful author and the figurehead of the Dreadful Penny Society, a group of penny dreadful authors who do ‘good works’.
Fletcher and Elizabeth cross paths at a literary salon in the opening pages of the book and sparks FLY. Elizabeth isn’t bothered in the slightest that Fletcher is ‘beneath’ her and he adores her wit and candour. Their chemistry is Very Clear and consistently enjoyable throughout the book. As Fletcher seeks to improve the lives of those living in the slums of London (more on that later), Elizabeth joins his plots and plans and takes an active role in improving the lives of orphans.
On a social justice level, a huge plus for me is that the MCs don’t buy into the (patently false) notion of the “worthy” poor or that the poverty cycle can somehow be broken by sheer force of will. Another plus is the language detail. While I am familiar with the speech patterns of the ton of historical romance, I enjoyed reading dialogue in (what I assume) is the vernacular of the Seven Dials area of London. The characters also use slang and colloquial terms which were current for the time in which the book was set. This focus on language is refreshing. I’ve read many historicals, but none with this particular voice. Hurrah!
Now, the creaky, not so sturdy parts….
Some of the characters and plot points felt a little forced. I found it difficult to fully invest in the Dreadful Penny Society, partly because of its ridiculous name, and partly because while claiming they are secretive, it takes Elizabeth exactly two minutes to realise what’s going on. Also, the rumours going around about the society are so accurate and detailed… I mean… they can’t be that good at keeping secrets. There’s an awful lot of fretting about how the Society must remain secret as they are doing things that while morally right are legally wrong, but this conflict only ever amounts to hand-wringing. In short, it’s a little tedious.
Another flat-line source of tension is Fletcher’s search for Mr King. Mr King’s books are outselling the other penny dreadfuls which hits the bottom line of the Dreadful Penny Society. The Society uses the funds from their book sales to do their good works, but with smaller cash reserves their sustainability is in peril. This source of tension goes nowhere. While they fret about depleted cash reserves and the consequent inability to continue their work, neither event never even remotely happens. Again, tedious.
My real bug-bear…
In this novel, we have one longer story (the main plot of the book) and two shorter stories. We have the story of Elizabeth and Fletcher IRL so to speak, but then we also have two penny dreadfuls: Mr Walker’s story of his street urchins fighting a monster and Mr King’s story of Lucinda and the highwayman. Each story has its own distinct voice, which is pretty impressive, but as two of the three stories are penny dreadfuls, we spend an awful lot of time in the land of High Melodrama which is tiresome.
While I appreciate the innovation in a sub-genre flooded with intrepid lady headmistresses, I’m not sure it pays off. I wanted to immerse myself in Elizabeth and Fletcher’s story, but just as it was getting good, I’d have to care about their alter egos as written in their respective penny dreadfuls. Have you ever been double-bounced on a trampoline? That’s what it felt like each time the book dropped a plot to pick up another. To rub salt in the wound, the character development that we see through their alter egos mostly mimics their development in the main plot. Again, tiresome.
Fun fact. I did like this book. I read the whole thing in a couple days. That is not the action one takes when faced with an awful book. So then why am I so angry when I did actually like the book? Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much better the book could have been. Some of the flatline-tension could have been edited out or ramped up and the penny dreadfuls could either have revealed new information or been edited down. There is plenty of bait for follow-up books, but I’m not sure I want to read them if so much of the book is going to be taken up by penny dreadfuls. Truly, this book could have been so much better; I finished it feeling disappointed rather than satisfied.