Book Review: Veronica Speedwell Novels
There is a reason that I always start with book one in a series. It is the book that lays the groundwork and sets the tone and background for the characters.
That said, it is probably good that I started on the second book (accidentally) and not the first. For the first book is not nearly as well written as the second book and I am not convinced I would have finished or continued otherwise.
So, what are the books I am talking about? It is a new series by Deanna Raybourn. Book 1 is entitled: A Curious Beginning and book 2 is called: A Perilous Undertaking.
Having read A Perilous Undertaking first, I am going to start the discussion here. And we will start on a positive. A Perilous Undertaking is reasonably well written. The level of language is appropriate (even though they use fecundity incorrectly). Generally though, it seems the author did their research well. I learned that Veronica is the name of a plant. The novel is peppered with the scientific names of butterflies, which I assume are correct (though I didn’t actually check). The introduction of the two main leads: Veronica Speedwell our narrating female protagonist and her partner in science and detectiving Stoker (Revelstoke Templeton-Vane). I like the way the relationship is set up in the second novel between these two characters.
Further, the author did one of the best summaries of a first book I have seen in a very long time. We learn all the pertinent information in bits and pieces appropriately scattered throughout the novel. There is not a chapter dedicated to summarizing earlier events, it is all worked in quite nicely – at least for someone who has not read book one. I don’t know if it would be tedious if you had done things in the proper order. So, overall, I think book two: A Perilous Undertaking.
Book one: A Curious Beginning was a flop for me. It was not nearly as clean, well-organized or interesting. This is in part due to the fact that I already knew what was coming. That said, the writing should have carried me through the story. It didn’t, so the question is why?
The Veronica Speedwell novels are set in Victorian England, about the time the Queen celebrates her jubilee. The offspring are grown into adulthood with children of their own. There is no magic, no mythical creatures and no unusual technology (steampunk). Yet, the stories are pure fantasy. As fantasy, I am willing to overlook many things that would not actually happen during that time period. After all, I do like spunky female leads.
Unfortunately the author does not sell it well enough. Veronica is telling the story much like a memoire, not my favourite style. But the greatest offense is the “telling” not “showing” aspect of the writing. I am constantly reminded that Veronica is a scientist. Veronica:
A scientist is always logical, and I am a scientist.
I am not a simpering female, because I am a scientist and I do not have emotions.
A scientist is always organized and tidy. Why are you not more clean, Revelstoke, because you are a scientist.
I am a scientist, so it is only natural that I want to sleep with men outside of wedlock. Because being a scientist makes me curious. Unless we are talking about my personal history. Then I don’t care that I was a foundling, raised by two maiden aunts. And strange things start to happen when I burry the last of my aunts. Because that can’t possibly have anything to do with me.
The main protagonist is a pretentious twit who is so selfish that she is essentially oblivious to the rest of the world. Which is rather entertaining, as this 25 year old character has supposedly loved and lost, and traveled the world, escaped dangers, killed men and captured the most rare of butterflies!
For a person with so much worldly experience Veronica is an idiot about the plot of her story. When her home is ransacked and strangers suddenly appear to whisk her off to London saying she is now in terrible danger, Veronica thinks nothing is amiss. Even when that person is found murdered, she believes that this string of odd events is completely unrelated to her. Really? Can one individual be that disconnected from reality? But don’t worry, when she finally allows herself to believe that things might be a bit trickier than she thought, Veronica will convince Stoker to science out the problem. They will solve the murder, uncover the secrets and … save the day, I suppose. Like I said, the story is pure fantasy.
Only the author struggles with the pacing of the plot in A Curious Beginning. She also fails to create a proper tension between Veronica and Stoker. Stoker being another character who has loved and lost (a wife apparently), worked in the navy as a surgeon, learned knife throwing from a traveling show, hunted the greatest mammals on earth, published important scientific papers, nearly died, fell into the depths of despair, struggled back from the brink, and more! All before the age of about 30 (I think). Yes, her characters have done it all, or nearly. And while the author wants to tease a relationship between her two leads, she doesn’t want them to settle into anything just yet. So it is an on-again, off-again sort of writing; which is tedious.
To summarize: Veronica is a woman with modern sensibilities living in Victorian England. She is a scientist and will remind you of this fact repeatedly. She is sort of forced into the company of Stoker, another scientist, who she can trust and respect because he is ruggedly handsome with a fascinating scare down the side of his face (though the eye does still work – so he is not too damaged) and bad-boy demeanor. Together, they will track down Veronica’s past (not actually much tracking needed), thwart her murder and chum together in book two in order to solve another murder.
While I would rate the books as a good solid mediocre. Book two is certainly the better written of the pair. My suggestion, skip book one and start with A Perilous Undertaking.