Saturday, April 9, 2022

Deanna Raybourn - A Perilous Undertaking

London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed...

Comment: This is the second installment in the Veronica Speedwell series by author Deanna Raybourn. I had a great time reading the first book last year and have decided to carry on with the series when I can and this month I could read the 2nd book.

In this new adventure, Veronica and Stoker are asked to help someone whose identity must remain a secret. That person is friends with a man accused of murdering his mistress but despite the obvious scene when the man was caught with blood in his hands, there is something that doesn't seem right. As Veronica and Stoker investigate, they learn of secret rendezvous at the estate of the accused man, and also about the world of artists in London. Some things that come to light also affect their own perception and feelings...will they be able to deal with is happening and still help to save an apparently innocent man from hanging?

I liked this book. I think it's a very sequel to what we had learned in the first book, although I must say I expected a bit more development overall, regarding Veronica's path. I know this is a series, there are more books ahead, but I kind of wanted to see more emotional evolution more quickly.

The plot is quite interesting, Veronica and Stoker are asked to investigate a murder. The person who asks this is someone important in the royal family whose identity cannot be revealed to prevent scandal. This means they can't simply explain certain things they know but must act as if they are investigating from scratch. As they do, we get to meet several artistic people who work in the same place where the murdered woman was, and some prove to be quite interesting at several levels, especially because in their interactions with Veronica and Stoker, we get to learn things about them too.

The murdered woman was an artist and was pregnant with her lover's baby. That man is accused of murdering her and although it is said he had an alibi for the time of the murder, he can't prove it nor does he want to for some reason and that makes him look even more guilty. I found this part of the story a little weak, after all we only have an opinion of the accused by having other characters talk about him, and not directly his own actions.

To be fair, even though I'm not an usually quick guesser, I must say the real culprit here became rather obvious to me from a certain point, not yet half way through the story. The motif and the action were quite clear, just the how was less obvious. I think the author did try to distract the reader with some red herring clues but to me, the psychological aspect seemed very evident and if one thinks about it for a while, the staging for this murder mystery was rather obvious as well.

That aside, for most readers of course the most interesting aspect of this novel is the continuation of the development of Veronica and Stoker's relationship. They are only friends and co-workers, "partners in crime" so to speak, but there is a clear hint at how that can change into a romantic relationship as well. They are taking their time, again because it's a matter of natural progression for their personalities - both have secrets, have things from their past which they don't want to share - and because it is supposed for things to change slowly.

We do learn more details about them, but it's all shared with a certain measure to the point I feel the author probably had a list from the start of where and how much to share in each book. This means we know they will take their time before getting closer but I hope the process with have the proper emotional development alongside it, which I feel could have been done better here. 

I liked learning a bit more about Stoker's family and I would say it was a positive mark in this book. I mean, it's perhaps not the most obvious clue - it does seem so, though, once we learn it - but it was good to have another perspective of him and of his personality, his attitudes... 

As for Veronica, she remains confident and aware, determined and seemingly immune to certain comments, always ready with a come back but I wish we could have a more vulnerable side of her more often. She is often too aloof and even if during the most complicated moments, it's good to see her show how clever and independent she is, I would like to see another side of her and why would she be a better person or a more challenged one of she were to be in love, for instance.

Everything considered, this was still a rich and entertaining novel, could have been better, especially when it comes to the mystery, but I am eager to read the next one and see what happens.
Grade: 8/10

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