|image source: What I Read and What I Thought|
The novel, Darker Still, had quite a lot going against it at the start. It was a romance and supernatural novel, which are genres of which I am not particularly fond. But I do enjoy the "Parasol Protectorate" series by Gail Carriger, which are also romance/paranormal stories, and Hieber's own admission that the story was inspired by Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey sealed the deal in the purchase of Darker Still.
This epistolary novel consists mostly of the journal of 17-year-old upper middle class girl Natalie Stewart living in New York City in the 1880s. Having recently returned from an asylum for deaf and mute girls, Natalie is separated from most of the society of the city by the fact that she has not spoken a word since she was four years old.
Through her father, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she learns of a portrait of a handsome young English lord named Denbury, a beautiful, life-like painting that is said to be haunted. As a result of this one painting Natalie finds a whole new world that she never knew about- a world filled with magic, ghosts, demons, premonitions, mediums, dangerous power-seekers, and true love.
Well, I must say Ms. Hieber- Well done.
One of the greatest strengths of this novel was, in my opinion, Hieber's ability to make most of the events and interactions between characters seem believable, natural or supernatural though they may have been. Natalie is, as are the other females of the novel, constantly concerned about propriety in interactions between themselves and the people with whom they come in contact. Sometimes these Victorian social boundaries are tested, but quite often, in the main action, they are outright broken. But the situations that present themselves- having one's spirit sucked into a painting, for one- would call for temporarily putting off propriety and societal decorum. And the actual "magic" of the story, as well as interactions with supernatural characters and situations, were logically thought out and the important details eventually deciphered and explained to the readers. Not everything was explained, but part of that reason was that some of the magic and the presence of supernatural creatures was not understood by the main players in the story.
I also appreciated the fact that the two main characters were, in true historic fashion, religious in that they believed in a Christian God despite their interactions with supernatural elements. In fact, such religious faith seemed to strengthen the gifted Mrs. Northe's resolve in dealing with the supernatural and the evil surrounding it. It also goes along with the research of spirituality in America that Hieber discussed in one of her lectures at the Symposium.
The amount of research Hieber did on Victorian social interactions and various religious and supernatural concepts, symbols, languages, and stories is impressive. The book wasn't bogged down by the finer details, but all important points were made clearly and concisely. Much of this was due to the presence of Mrs. Northe, an upper class society lady and a wise, intelligent medium, who cared to relate only what was important to solving the mystery behind the painting to the narrator, Natalie. The best part was that so much was left unexplained that did not need to be explained in order to make the story run logically from beginning to end. I also would bet that many of the questions raised in the first novel will continue in the novels to follow in the "Magic Most Foul" series of which Darker Still is a part.
The climax, as well as the final pages of rising action leading up to it, made me stay up two hours longer than I had intended that night. It was very exciting, and still made logical sense to me, signs of excellent storytelling in my opinion.
The only problems I had with the book were few and not major. The first issue was with the large printed words, which makes the fact that the book itself is printed as being 271 pages seem a joke. It's definitely written for a young adult audience, not a literary snob like myself. I also don't like the cover art, mostly because of the model's dress- not Victorian enough for my tastes.
I also had trouble with the romantic interactions. I guess I am not much of a romantic at heart, but I could not see how two people in Victorian times who don't know each other at all could get to kissing and caressing in less than two weeks, supernatural events or no.
My last problem was I felt Mrs. Northe was too convenient of a character. She always seemed to have an answer for everything, and her continued assistance of the protagonist to do dangerous things, even if she didn't approve of them, did not seem right for a Victorian-era lady. It's one thing to send one's "dirty job" man to tail a girl going into a dangerous slum neighborhood at night, but it's an entirely different thing altogether to have a valise packed and ready to help the girl to run away from home at a moment's notice. She was just too ready to help the story's action move along that more quickly.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and would recommend it as a great addition to any Gothic romance or Victorian era lover's modern reading collection.