London, 1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.
Publisher and Release Date: September 2015 by NAL/Penguin
Time and Setting: London, 1887
Genre: Mystery/Adventure with a hint of romance to come
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars
Review by Lady Wesley
Readers who enjoyed Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series of Victorian mystery/romance stories will definitely want to try A Curious Beginning, the first volume of a new series featuring an independent-minded Victorian woman who goes sleuthing with a sexy, mysterious man of many secrets. On the surface, the characters sound similar to Lady Julia and Brisbane, but they are sufficiently different from that couple to make this series stand on its own.
Veronica Speedwell (and yes, that is an intentionally redundant name, as “Speedwell” is the common name for the flowering genus Veronica) is an orphan raised by two spinsters who call themselves her aunts but who really are not related to her. She never knew her parents and apparently never was curious to know about them. She took up lepidoptery in her youth as a way of getting out of the house by herself, and she has turned it into a quasi-career and traveled to remote parts of the world. As she is a thoroughly modern young woman, she has occasionally indulged her carnal desires with men she met on her travels. The story opens as the last aunt has died after Veronica returned from a butterfly-hunting trip to Costa Rica.
Veronica is rational, independent, stubborn, and outspoken. She has none of the usual accomplishments expected of a Victorian female and has no desire to marry and have children. It is not surprising, therefore, that when she returns from her aunt’s funeral to find an intruder in their cottage, she fights and then pursues him. When the intruder attempts to drag her into a waiting carriage, she is rescued by a courtly German gentleman who introduces himself as Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach. He tells her that her life is in jeopardy and that she must put herself under his protection. Trusting her instincts – which Veronica does quite often – she agrees and they set off for London.
It turns out that the baron knew her mother, but he is reluctant to tell her much immediately. “If it were in my power to tell you everything . . . ” he tells Veronica as he leaves her in London, promising to return. The baron commits Veronica to a man he trusts completely, Stoker, a naturalist and taxidermist who works in a dilapidated Thames-side warehouse crammed full of scientific specimens, dead animals, and all sorts of related paraphernalia. Stoker does not make a good first impression, but he owes the baron some type of debt of honor, so he begrudgingly agrees to let Veronica stay and promises to protect her. Emphasis on begrudgingly.
Lots of authors create romantic heroes who are rude, moody, and misogynistic, but with Stoker, Deanna Raybourn has outdone them all. In the early parts of the book, it is very difficult to imagine Stoker as a hero; he is truly a jerk. Soon, however, when the baron is found murdered and Stoker takes Veronica on the road to elude the assassin, the pair begin to develop a reluctant respect for one another. Veronica is not one to be cowed by any man, and there is delightful banter between the two. It becomes easier to admire Stoker, although he never will be a hail-fellow-well-met type of guy. He is devoted to protecting his charge, and there were a few times I became impatient with Veronica’s reluctance to trust him.
There are far too many twists and turns in the plot for me to do it justice in this review. Suffice it to say that you will not in your wildest dreams imagine what is coming next. And yet, thanks to Ms. Raybourn’s skill, it all works beautifully in the end. The mystery of Veronica’s birth is revealed, but there is lots of room for further developments in that area. And some of Stoker’s past comes to light, although he still remains a man of deep mystery. The author has pulled off a neat trick in making the heroine a plain-speaking, practical, and unsentimental woman, while the hero is more of an emotional, reticent, and easily wounded romanticist (although he would deny it).
In the end, Veronica devises a clever plan for them to continue working together, as she realizes that she does not want to simply say good-bye to Stoker forever.
Something about his quickness of mind, his determination to live by his own lights, had called to me. I recognized his nature as my own. It was as if we were two castaways from a far-off land, adrift among strangers whose ways we could not entirely understand. But something within us spoke the same language, for all our clashes of words. He did not trust me entirely; that much was certain. And I frequently frustrated him to the point of madness. But I knew that whatever bedeviled him, he had need of me—and it seemed a betrayal to turn my back upon one of my own kind. I had seldom met another such as we, and I had learned that to be a child of the wilderness was a lonely thing.
So, is this book truly a romance? Some readers would say “no,” given that the couple don’t even exchange a kiss. The underlying, unspoken sexual tension between them, however, is off the charts. In this respect, it is similar to the initial relationship between Lady Julia and Brisbane, and I am relieved to say that by the end I found Stoker attractive enough to make a potential romance appealing. I don’t know that he will replace Brisbane as one of my favorite book-boyfriends, but I am eager to see him try.
Deanna Raybourn is a talented writer, and her adroit mixture of history, romance, and mystery have made her one of my favorites. In A Curious Beginning, she has put together a first-rate combination of plot, characters, and atmosphere that has me eagerly looking forward to spending a lot more time with Veronica and Stoker.