By Katy Goodwin-Bates
If you’re thinking of picking up a copy of The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, I strongly recommend also acquiring a dictionary of 19th century English; unless you happen to already know what a reticule is, some of the vocabulary here may leave you flummoxed. If, however, you have read enough Jane Austen to be familiar with the vagaries of women’s fashion in the Regency period, then give in to your instincts and grab this book.
Goodman’s setting is London in 1812: a world of royal presentations, dukes and earls, society balls, and, obviously, reticules. Oh, and demons. They’re kind of important. Set against the backdrop of real-life war with France, Regency London is a dangerous city, where a young woman can easily find herself at the mercy of a soul-sucking monster or boring, meat-breathed dance partner. Our representative in this world is Lady Helen, making her society debut whilst trying to solve numerous mysteries pertaining to the death of her parents, and the disappearance of a maid. It’s a bit like Nancy Drew in ball-gowns. With monsters.
I knew all of this when beginning to read The Dark Days Club, and so I was somewhat perplexed by the slow opening chapters. A decent wedge of the book is out of the way before anything supernatural starts to happen, and then a hefty amount of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo is dropped on the reader. It’s all relevant and makes more sense as the story progresses, but the shift in pace is enough to give you whiplash. It is, however, entirely fair to say the last two-thirds of the book is possessed of a pace which is far more blistering and contains plenty of exciting incidents, as well as a large amount of technical information about country dancing.
Lord Carlston was handsome, Helen conceded, in a hard, angular way that made the men around him seem somewhat effeminate. Yet there was a ruthlessness to the set of his mouth that was decidedly repellant. – page 68
Aside from the pacing issues, The Dark Days Club is supremely good fun. During my many re-reads of Austen’s novels, I’ve always thought to be a woman in early 19th century England must have been just painfully dull; denied the opportunity to do anything more strenuous than playing a piano and taking the occasional stroll after church, it is a marvel Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood didn’t seek more nefarious entertainments just to stave off death by boredom. Lady Helen starts the novel in much the same way, clearly weary of her first season in society before it’s even begun, and spending an inordinate amount of time sewing. It would appear she does not even have a piano on which to take out her frustrations, which basically halves the potential for entertainment in the home of her overbearing aunt and patriarchal nemesis of an uncle. Consequently, it is hardly surprising when Helen’s interest is piqued by evil Lord Carlston, alleged wife-killer, when he attempts to recruit her to the Dark Days Club, a mysterious alliance of demon-fighters. They have glass knives and complicated watches; accessories really are key here.
Setting a contemporary novel in the 19th century provides the benefit of taking an informed and more enlightened view of the politics of the age, which means Goodman is able to target gender issues in a way which her Regency and Victorian equivalents could not. The limits placed on women, as mentioned before, are commented on repeatedly here, with Helen showing frustration when considering the limited options available to her, even as a lady of high society. While the rest of the world is desperate to marry her off, Lady Helen is drawn more to the adventure Lord Carlston offers, even while being simultaneously repelled by it. I am a great admirer of novels which are able to highlight these kinds of issues without beating the reader about the head with them.
“Your father’s will has placed you in my care until you are twenty-five, or until another man is willing to take on the burden of your well-being. If you are to become a wife, you must learn that obedience is the cornerstone of femininity.” He tilted his head towards the door. “Go.” – page 160
Part of the fun of The Dark Days Club is in the way it takes our expectations of a Regency-set novel and whacks us on the head with them before running off and giggling. To cite a completely different example, something I loved about Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On was the highly un-Harry Potter-like swearing; here, the references to prostitutes, pornographic images and keeping demon-fighting equipment in one’s knickers are entertainingly titillating, to both Lady Helen and the reader. It is also one of those books which has the effect of making you talk like the characters, hence the fact I have been addressing everyone as “Lord” and “Lady” for the last three days.
Lady Helen herself is an interesting protagonist; the billing of this as “A Lady Helen Novel” gives an unambiguous clue that the intention is for The Dark Days Club to be the first in a series, and I’ll be intrigued to see how the character develops in later books. She has wit, intelligence, and curiosity, as well as an appealing unwillingness to be dictated to or patronised, all of which adds up to a pleasingly admirable heroine. I am cautiously optimistic all these marvellous character traits will mean this series avoids the tiresome cliche of the newbie superhero who can’t quite be bothered to learn their new skills properly. Aside from anything else, Lady Helen’s manners are surely too civilised for all those tantrums.
The Dark Days Club will be available soon at GPL.