Imagine Jane Austen Regency romance, with all its pomp and circumstance, mixed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer style paranormal creatures and secret societies set up to battle the secret forces of evil right under the noses of society. What you have is Alison Goodman’s The Dark Days Club, a novel which I didn’t know I needed but I should have been able to guess given that it’s a bizarre but fitting combination of everything I love in this world.
“Yes, you should be amazed,” her uncle snapped. “You are lucky you have forty thousand pounds, girl. I have a feeling your lively spirit would be far less attractive without it.”
It’s 1812, it’s London, and young Lady Helen Wrexhall is about to be presented to the court of King George III. Living under the shady shadow of her mother’s reputation (the word ‘treason’ is whispered everywhere she goes), Lady Helen tries to be the best society lady she can be, including dancing, wearing gowns, and securing a suitable marriage to an upstanding Duke or Count. That is, until one of her family’s servants disappears in strange circumstances and, in the search for her, Lady Helen stumbles into a darker world she hadn’t realised co-existed alongside respectable Regency society.
“Helen felt his hand fleetingly touch her cheek, just before he stepped away. Just before the door opened and the civilised world came clamouring back into the room.”
Lady Helen is the perfect heroine – she’s smart, she’s sassy, she has an appropriate response to hearing there might be a secret underground world of paranormal creatures living right under everyone’s noses in Regency London. Which is to say, she isn’t just blindly accepting of her alleged fate but questions it, and the world she is inadvertently dragged into during the course of the story. Her interactions with her aunt, uncle, and even her maid prove to illustrate a complex character which Goodman will undoubtedly develop even further over the course of the Lady Helen series.
Another interesting dynamic occurs in the relationships with characters who could otherwise be minor characters in the larger tale. For example, Helen and her lady’s maid Darby have a close-knit relationship past the usual lady-and-household-staff dynamic, something which is reminiscent of Lady Mary and Anna from Downton Abbey. I appreciate this kind of friendship within period drama pieces as it would be all too easy to only present the ‘upstairs’ story line with none of the ‘downstairs’ action, but pleasingly The Dark Days Club has Lady Helen almost scandalously caring for the well-being of her household’s staff.
“If she had only one word to describe him, Helen decided as she drew closer, it would be commanding. Or enigmatic. Or disturbing. Which, of course, was three words. Lord Carlston was not a man to be contained, even in adjectives.”
Then, of course, we have the proverbial Mr Darcy of the piece, in the form of one Lord Carlston. Enigmatic and mysterious, he is Mr Darcy but with actual darkness in his past, because tall, dark and brooding, always causing a sudden bout of whispering when he dares to show up at a social gathering, Lord William Standfield, Earl of Carlston, is a man whose reputation proceeds him… and not necessarily in a good way. A tad disdainful of society and not quite respectable, his name carries with it status, true enough, but also gossip about potentially scandalous proclivities and involvement in a touch of treason. He can play the game of society if he must, but his brusque manner and reputation prevents him from truly charming an assembly as he otherwise might.
“Glowing people, strange gifts and now non-human creatures. Helen closed her eyes, feeling everything she had known shift into a new and frightening order.”
And, of course, our heroine Lady Helen has more than a couple of brushes with this dangerous Earl, it’s downright obligatory within your typical Regency romance so The Dark Days Club doesn’t disappoint there either, and neither does Carlston. He’s intelligent, witty, guarded, and just secretive enough for you to be just as unnerved but intrigued as Helen herself is. I was caught, hook, line, and sinker. There’s also a letter – and I won’t give its contents away entirely but it borrows from the same school of thought of Austen’s heroes penning a revelatory letter to express all of their mushier feelings. Except it’s Carlston, so it’s not so mushy.
“So, is a Reclaimer some kind of Runner?” She laughed at a sudden ridiculous thought. “Am I set to be a thief-taker, Lord Carlston? Shall I drag a few ruffians to the gallows?”
The world building is ready-made, to an extent, because Goodman utilises the backdrop of early 19th century Regency London. However, she also builds the idea of a covert level of society which exists alongside the cobbled streets and fancy houses, and we’re not just talking about brothels and gambling parlours or other altogether unsavoury places of ill repute. The paranormal element is weaved into the story nicely and the reader is introduced to the world of secret societies and demon hunting along with Lady Helen.
“Not an easy task, since the idea of a police force is an abomination to a right-minded Englishman, being as it is a French idea.”
The “real” world is no less interesting, however, and I appreciated the inclusion of some of the historical and political concerns of the Regency period. For example, the scene is immediately set when a note preceding the opening chapter introduces the Prince Regent “Prinny”, Queen Charlotte who holds Drawing Rooms (events where young ladies are presented into high society), and the unrest brewing both across the Atlantic in America and in France with Napoleon Bonaparte. The macrocosm of world history is connected to the microcosm of Lady Helen’s life through the ambiguous character of her mother, Lady Catherine, Countess of Hayden, drowned at sea ten years ago and yet still casting a dangerous shadow over her now-grown daughter’s reputation. The word ‘treason’ is thrown about, along with whispers of her plotting with the French (of all hideous people!) and it is because of this that Lady Helen feels pressure, applied not-so-lovingly by her strict Uncle Pennworth, to conform to the expected levels of behaviour in proper society – a society that is unknowingly being threatened by demonic forces. (Side note: a slightly vampiric Lord Byron pops in for a party or two… not kidding.)
“Well, I am not intending to stand on the ground with the Great Unwashed,” Mrs Forbes said briskly. “We will hire a room overlooking the gallows, have a spot of breakfast, and be as safe as you like.”
All in all, Alison Goodman’s The Dark Days Club succeeds in skillfully weaving all the accoutrements of a novel set during the Regency along with a more sinister underground world of the real London, complete with its secret societies dedicated to fighting demonic forces of evil so that the lords and ladies might continue their merriment unimpeded. After all, having to pause a quadrille in order to slay a demon amidst a society ball would rather ruin one’s impeccable reputation, as would having an energy-hungry demon feast on your party guests. Full of wit and action, The Dark Days Club doesn’t let up, drawing readers into this bizarre but thrilling world of Goodman’s Regency London and its dual battlegrounds of Society and society which make the perfect place for Lady Helen to learn how to fight for others and, most importantly, herself.
“I do not believe easily, Lady Helen. You and I share a philosophical bent and, in particular, a respect for the evidence of our eyes. I have watched you discover your abilities and with them the knowledge of our hidden world. There is one other thing that I now firmly believe.
You have far more courage than you think you do.”