Saturday, September 12, 2015

#Saturday Review - A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn (Historical, Mystery)

Series: Veronica Speedwell # 1
Format: E-Galley, 352 pages
Release Date: September 1, 2015
Publisher: NAL/Penguin
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Genre: Historical, Mystery

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.

Set in 1887 Victorian Era England, A Curious Beginning is the first installment in the Veronica Speedwell Mystery Trilogy. Protagonist Veronica Speedwell is a natural historian with a specialty in lepidoptery (butterflies). Basically means she's a butterfly hunter who travels the world looking for exotic new species. She is known to have the occasional dalliances with foreign men, while avoiding her fellow Englishmen. What Veronica isn't, however, is a Victorian Romance novels leading lady who bows down to the desires of the male dominated world, while having hot steamy sex on every other page. 

She could care less about finding marriage, especially to a man who has six children. She is inquisitive, independent, passionate about her calling, fearless in her travels to places that are far from friendly, and feisty to a fault. Upon her Aunt's death, Veronica chooses to set out on her own once again to find yet another exotic destination, and maybe a hot blooded Italian to ravish. OK, I am totally making that last part up but not about the desired booty call! It's too bad that fate, and an unwanted destiny rise up and block her plans. From finding an intruder in her cottage; to running into and leaving with a Baron who knew Veronica's mother; to finding him bludgeoned to death shortly after, Veronica's story has just begun. 

What this story is NOT, is a romance novel. It is a mystery novel with historical aspects, including Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebration. Raybourn sticks to telling her mystery by adding a fellow scientist named Stoker (no, not that Stoker!) who is a reclusive natural historian with a deep dark past. Veronica and Stoker find themselves partnered up against unknown enemies that are on polar opposites. One side wants her dead, the other wants to use her for political advantages. Veronica's very existence may be the deep, dark secret that tears apart Empires all across Europe. 

I dare say that I wasn't at all unhappy with the lack of romance in this story. One could argue that Veronica has a mind all her own, and yes, people, there were actually women in the 19th century who didn't believe in marriage before sex. (See Marriage and Women in the 19th Century). I loved the banter and fun that Veronica and Stoker have at each others expense. I love that the story kept moving at a pretty brisk pace. I loved that there are still mysteries unresolved, which means more for the next book! 

**I received this book for free from (Publisher) via (Edelweiss) in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**

Chapter Four

It was very late when we arrived in London—or very early, I suppose, for dawn was upon us, pale pearl grey light washing over the city as it began to wake.
"Only a few minutes more," the baron promised, and he sat upright in the carriage now. His shoulders had slumped with fatigue the last several hours, and I had managed to sleep a bit, curled over my traveling bag with the baron keeping watch on the road behind. But as we came into the city I rose, rubbing at my eyes and pinching my cheeks and pinning my hat more firmly upon my head. My previous visits to London had been brief ones en route to other lands, confined to stuffy train stations and unsavory cabs. The sight of the great sprawling gloom of the metropolis enthralled me.
"You like the city," the baron said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I should have thought a natural historian would prefer the country."
"I love it all," I told him somewhat breathlessly. "Every arrival in London is the beginning of a new story." I tore my gaze from the view of the city and gave him a smile. "I wonder if I shall divide my life scientifically into the periods B.B. and A.B.—before the Baron von Stauffenbach and after. Have you set me off on great adventures, then, Baron?" I teased.
But the baron made no reply. The carriage rocked to a stop and he instructed me to alight, taking my carpetbag himself as I carried my butterfly net. My grasp of London geography being tenuous at best, I had a notion we were somewhere east of the Tower on the north bank of the River Thames, but that was all I could determine. The neighborhood was in the heart of the docklands, filled with warehouses and cheap lodgings and people who looked—and smelled—distinctly unwashed. Gulls wheeled overhead, shrieking for food, and the heavy, greasy aroma of frying fish filled the air.
"Stoker's workshop is in the next street," the baron said, guiding me over the broken pavement with a hand under my elbow. "This is not the most salubrious quarter, but I did not think it wise to have my own carriage stop directly at his door."
We maneuvered through a narrow alley that debouched into the next street. The baron stopped at a nondescript door at the very end of an even more nondescript wall. It looked like any of a thousand other doors in London, and the building beyond seemed a sort of warehouse, with a high roof and plain, solid structure.
"He lives here?"
The baron nodded. "It suits his work." He rapped sharply, more than once, but there was no answer, and I began to wonder if our adventure was destined to end as soon as it had begun. To my surprise, the baron extracted a large ring of keys from his pocket and, after a moment's consideration, selected one. He fitted it to the lock and let himself in, motioning me to follow. He locked the door carefully behind us and replaced the keys in his pocket. We were in a small anteroom of sorts, and from the various empty packing cases scattered about the floor I deduced it had once served as a shopfront for the warehouse behind. The baron beckoned me forward and we passed into the storage areas—a series of large rooms, each filthier and colder than the last, and all stuffed with rubbish. Windows ran along the south wall, revealing that the warehouse was built directly above the river. The dank odor of water was heavy in the air, and the floors were cold with damp.
Finally, we emerged into the warehouse itself, an immense cavern of a space, and I stifled a gasp.
"You have brought me to hell," I whispered in horrified delight, for the place was like something out of Dante's fevered imagination. The room was lit with the unholy crimson light of an enormous stove, and in its fiery glow I made out an endless assortment of shelves and hooks, each laden with something more grisly and disturbing than the last. Bones leered out from the gloom—long, knobby femurs and grinning, pointed skulls with great fanged teeth. Unspeakable things floated in specimen jars of ghoulish yellow fluids, and animal skins were pinned flat to the walls as if newly flayed from the flesh. A wide iron cauldron, large enough to boil a man, stood expectantly to one side, as if waiting for its next offering.
But none of these was as disturbing as the sight that met my eyes in the center of the room. There stood an enormous creature, rough flesh sculpted over a steel skeleton, pieces of wrinkled skin half-draped upon it, the rest hanging limp and lifeless to the floor like a discarded garment. Standing below it was a man, stripped to the waist, his naked torso covered in sweat and streaked with black, the smoky soot mingling with a collection of tattoos that spread across his back and down his arms. He wore old-fashioned breeches tucked into high boots and an apron fashioned of leather and fitted with pockets holding various tools that looked like instruments of torture. He was wrestling with the skin of the beast, the muscles of his back and shoulders corded against the strain, and he swore fluently as he worked.
I felt a smile rising to my lips, for this was no hell, no monster's den. It was, in fact, the lair of a taxidermist. The shelves along one wall were fitted with Wardian cases containing hundreds—no, thousands—of specimens, a veritable museum of natural history hidden away in a dingy warehouse on the north bank of the Thames. I longed to explore everything at once, but it was the man himself who claimed my attention.
"Stoker," the baron called.
The man whirled, his hands still gripping the animal's skin, his face imperfectly illuminated by the fire. He was half in shadow, and the shadow revealed him slowly. His left eye was covered by a black leather patch, and thin white scars raked his brow and the cheekbone below. They carried on, down the length of his neck, into the thick black beard, twisting under his collarbone and around his torso. They marred only the skin, I noted, for the muscles beneath were whole and strong, and the entire impression was one of great vitality and energy, strength unbridled. He looked like nothing so much as a fallen god working at a trade.
"Hephaestus at the forge," I murmured, recalling my mythology. The baron shot me a quick appraising glance.
"My dear?"
"Nothing," I said quickly, for the man had dropped his tools and was coming near. Just then he caught sight of me and paused, reaching for a shirt. To my regret, he pulled it on, obscuring his impressive form as he turned to the baron.
"Max, what the devil—"
The baron held up a hand. "I come to throw myself upon your mercy, Stoker. This young lady is Miss Speedwell. I must beg your help and ask you to keep her here. I cannot explain yet, but I must leave her with you."
Mr. Stoker turned the full force of his gaze upon me, scrutinizing me from my butterfly net to my neatly pinned hat, and shook his head. "Not bloody likely."
"Stoker, I know how you feel about your privacy, and I would not ask but I have no choice," the baron pressed, his voice low.
If I had had any sense of delicacy, I would have been acutely embarrassed by the situation. As it happened, I was merely bored with their discussion. I had little doubt the baron would prevail, and I was fairly itching to see what lurked amidst the collection Mr. Stoker had amassed. I wandered to the nearest shelf, where I peered at a specimen floating in a jar. It was a pretty little frog with enormous eyes and a faintly surprised expression.
I could hear them arguing in low voices behind me, the baron's aristocratic tones punctuated by Mr. Stoker's occasional profanity. I put out a hand and he called out sharply. "Do not touch that! It took me the better part of a year to find the damned thing and it cannot be replaced."
If he expected his harsh tone to cow me, he should learn differently right from the start, I decided. I picked up the jar and turned, setting a pleasant smile upon my lips. "Then you ought to have taken better care of it. Your seal is damaged, and the preservative solution is contaminated. The specimen looks to have been badly fixed as well. Pity, really, it's quite a fine little Phyllomedusa tomopterna."
His mouth tightened. "As the label quite plainly states, it is a Phyllomedusa tarsius."
"Yes, I see what the label states, but the label is wrong. You can tell by coloration of its lower legs. These are very bright orange with pronounced tiger stripes. Tarsius has green legs. Really, I am quite surprised you did not see it for yourself. I should have thought so avid a collector would have noticed such a difference. Ah well, perhaps you have not had the chance to examine it closely."
Mr. Stoker's mouth gaped open until he closed it with an audible snap. "I assure you, Miss Speedwell, I am intimately familiar with that particular specimen, considering I collected it myself in the jungles of the Amazon."
I was enthralled. He had appalling manners and questionable hygiene considering the state of his hands, but any man who had been to the Amazon was worth talking to.
Evidently Mr. Stoker did not share my interest in conversation, for he turned back to the baron to remonstrate with him one last time. "I haven't time to mind strays for you, Max. I have to finish that bloody great elephant by next month or Lord Rosemorran will not pay me."
The baron put out his hand. "My dear friend, I would not ask if necessity did not demand it."
Mr. Stoker said nothing, and, doubtless sensing his advantage, the baron pressed it. "I ask you for this one thing in memory of the dangers we have known together."
Mr. Stoker's face flushed dark red. "It is a very genteel form of extortion to remind a man of his debts, Max. Very well, dammit. I am nothing if not a man of my word. You have it. I will keep the lady here until you come for her."
The baron put out his hand to clasp his friend by the shoulder. "You have repaid your debt in full with this."
"I cannot think how," Mr. Stoker protested. "Overbearing spinsters are not exactly your stock in trade."
I studiously ignored the insult as I replaced his Phyllomedusa. Within a few moments the baron was on his way, taking his leave of me with a bow over my hand and a smartly Teutonic click of the heels.
He hesitated, my hand still in his, his eyes searching my face. "I leave you in the best care—better than my own, child. I will send word soon."
"Please do," I replied with a touch of asperity as I flicked a glance at Mr. Stoker. He curled a lip by way of reply.
The baron hesitated. "You must know, if it were in my power to tell you everything . . . ," he began. I held up a hand.
"I have come to know you a little in the course of our journey. I believe you to be a man of honor, Baron. It is plain that you are bound by strong loyalties. I must respect that."
"Respect it, but you do not like it," he finished with a kindly twinkle.
"And it is apparent you have come to know me a little too," I acknowledged. "I will bid you farewell in the German fashion then. Auf Wiedersehen, Baron."
He clicked his heels together a second time and pressed my hand. "God go with you, Miss Speedwell."
He left then, and Mr. Stoker saw him out, returning a moment later to find me studying his specimens again. "The baron did not tell me you were a taxidermist when he suggested I stay with you," I said pleasantly.
He returned to his elephant, taking up his tools. "I am a natural historian," he corrected. "Taxidermy is merely a part of what I do."
He offered neither a seat nor refreshment, but I was not prepared to stand on ceremony. I found a moth-eaten sofa lurking under a pile of skins and moved them aside enough to perch on the edge—carefully, for I noticed a leg of the sofa was missing, replaced with a decaying stack of volumes from the Description de l'Égypte. "It is very late—or very early. And yet you are at work."
He said nothing for a long moment, and I wondered if he meant to annoy me with his silence. But he was merely examining his glue, and as he began to apply it, he called over his shoulder. "I have not yet been to bed. I gather from Max that you traveled through the night. If you wish to sleep, shove the hides aside and take the sofa."
I sighed at this bit of churlishness, but fatigue won out over pride, and I began to move the hides. Suddenly, something in the bundle growled and I jumped back, nearly upsetting a case of fossilized eggs as I did so.
"For the love of God, watch what you're doing!" Mr. Stoker thundered. "'Tis only Huxley. He shan't hurt you."
I peeled away the hides to reveal a bulldog, squat and square, regarding me with statesmanlike solemnity. I slipped him a bit of cheese from my bag and he settled back happily, content to let me take the rest of the sofa. I curled behind him, feeling oddly contented with the warm, furry back of him pressed to my belly, and almost instantly I fell asleep.


  1. I loved Stoker's makeover! Also, her identity was gasp inducing for me.

    1. Agreed. I wonder if the author will re-address the issue before the trilogy is over.