Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sundark (Elle Black Penny Dread #1) by Elizabeth Watasin

Elle Black lives a happily domestic life with her wife in the darkly gothic world of Victorian London; certainly an unconventional relationship but one she lives with pride and joy and love.

But Elle isn’t just a housewife – she’s a psychic and she considers it her duty to help those that Prince Albert’s Royal Commission cannot or will not handle – and when Josephine Durfish comes to her door with tales of Sundark, the haunted hotel in which guests have gone missing, Elle is spurred into action.

This book is set in the same world as the Dark Victorian series – and it has those same wonderful elements. We have the darkly Gothic Victoriana (which, I admit, I love so completely) with it’s beautiful style and aesthetic. And it’s not just conveyed by the description but the joyfully elaborate style of the writing. This is from me, someone who doesn’t like over-elaborate writing and find Dickens to be incredibly torturous – yet this elaborate joyful language is so evocative of style and location. Just reading the style of the writing, the way people talk to each other, the setting it’s all so gloriously Victorian. The writing is beautiful and it oozes style and setting, it’s perfect.

I also love Faedra and Elle’s relationship. They’re married (using legal contracts) and are proud and passionate about their marriage. Their love and passion for each other is never hidden and it’s wonderfully omnipresent. Even though Elle spends most of this book separated from Faedra, her wife is always on her mind and their love permeates the entire book. It’s a beautiful relationship

And it’s not just a beautiful relationship because of their love, but because of how these characters are portrayed. I often feel how the book wonderful touches on a lot of stereotypes of lesbians and bisexual women, but never ever makes that a reason for the character – Faedra goes out and earns money while Elle stays home and prefers to keep house and be domestic, they even refer briefly to the idea of Faedra being a “husband” (because of the stereotype, especially in the age, of the man being the one to earn money) but reject it because they think they’re imposing a power imbalance on their relationship. And even when they do that, they then turn round and make Elle the active character throughout the book and Faedra be the one who loves bright colours and beautiful clothes. These are traits of the characters, not tropes they embody it’s that well balanced and it works for them. I love these characters.

I do feel that Elle’s open pride in her relationship faces a dubious lack of reaction from everyone around her, but it could as much be the setting; guests in a hotel and everyone being properly polite to each other.

With this beautiful relationship and wonderful world we have a twisty plot with lots of investigation of creepy paranormal events in this haunted hotel. The setting of this hotel is beautiful and creepy and with an odd cast of characters (some of which really worked and some of them just seemed… a little random and ill-defined).

The sad thing is that I think this book is just a bit too long and that especially shows in the middle – there was a dip there where, sadly, I got really bored. Elle is in the hotel and she doesn’t seem to be doing much and not much seems to be happening. We hear a lot about spookiness in the hotel, we hear that people disappeared and have a vague idea of who some of those people are. They eat a lot of bad meals and we get descriptions of some of the weird occurrences while a couple of characters ramble on rather incoherently about Hecate. In between we get a fair few flashes and hints about Elle’s ex-husband which seem to be more hints and hooks for the next book.

For a long time it felt like there was no progression, that the writer had led her characters into a rut and now was trying to scramble them out of it without quite knowing how to do it, so we repeated the same scenes, we had a lot of vague clues and none of it really added to the greater knowledge or Elle’s investigation. The break, when it comes, comes all at once after a long period of not only not discovering anything but not really seeming to do anything to discover anything.

On the POC we have        a Jamaican servant. She’s interesting and is certainly informed by her culture and experiences and is considered a romantic interest by at least one other character (though she herself is focused on her employer). She’s there for much of the book and I generally quite like her – she’s not hugely special but there’s nothing negative to her either. After Elle herself she was the most active participant in the book and seeking the end of the mystery that is consuming this hotel. Naturally between her, Elle and Faedra we have some truly excellent female characters.

We have another POC character who is mixed race and passing. It’s a very late reveal in the book but it does touch nicely on the pressures of passing and why they’re driven to pass – but it’s literally revealed in the closing pages of the book and there’s little chance for development.

In the end, I already loved this world and the introduction of these two characters to this already established world is an excellent addition to this already great setting. I look forward to seeing Elle and Faedra’s future adventures. I look forward to seeing the hints that were dropped in this series being followed up. I enjoy the little hints and touches that link this series to the Dark Victorian series and I hope both series continue because there’s so much good here. But this story, itself, didn’t quite work for me –it was too slow in the middle, there was too much tension building without any forward movement and it nearly lost me