Title: A Curious Beginning
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Penguin / NAL
Notable Notables: Victorian setting, Sex-positive protagonist
Recommended Readers: Anyone who wants to start reading mystery
I wound up getting into this series a little backwards. After winning an ARC off NetGalley, I was excited to begin my foray into mystery, led by a lady detective.
Until I realized that the ARC was actually book 3, and you can’t just jump in anywhere and be all caught up. This is a character-led mystery series more than a circumstance-led one. I read the first lines of book 3, featuring Veronica Speedwell and her companion Stoker, when I realized that these two characters have a world of history behind them, and I wanted to know every little detail.
So here I am, frantically attempting to get through all three books and post reviews before A Treacherous Curse comes out on January 16th. Whoops! Wish me luck.
Fortunately, reading A Curious Beginning was not at all a chore, proving instead to be a quick, fun read. I instantly fell in love with Veronica, a young woman who explores the world as a lepidopterist, or a butterfly collector. Shrewd and intrepid, Veronica recognizes that this profession is one of the few that allows women to “act out” and roam the countryside unaccompanied, and she does so with particular zeal.
I loved that she spoke her mind and admired other women who do the same or hold ambitions of their own. She’s not even shy about the trysts with foreign men she’s had overseas, viewing sexual fulfillment as being equally important for women as it is for men. She even has a self-imposed rule that she will not dally with her own countrymen (Englishmen), both because it would ruin her local reputation and she’s not looking to settle down.
The novel opens upon a funeral. Veronica has just buried the last of her two adoptive aunts and readies herself to leave England behind for a moment and go on a much-needed expedition overseas. Before she can, she stumbles upon a man ransacking her aunts’ home and, in true Veronica fashion, runs him off with a concealed blade. When the man tries to abduct her, a German baron appears, helping her ruin the attempt.
The baron claims to have known Veronica’s mother, a woman she has never known or seen, but he is forced to be extremely secretive about the knowledge, promising her he will tell her everything when the time is right–but right now she is in grave danger, and he must get her to safety.
Veronica doesn’t believe him, despite the previous abduction attempt, and I have to agree with her reasoning. She claims that she is no one special and, aside from the lepidopterist profession, has led an unremarkable life without making any significant enemies of anyone. Plus, she doesn’t know the baron from any other stranger, so why would she believe his judgement?
Regardless, seeking a new adventure and a free fare, she accompanies him to London, where he leaves her in the care of one of his friends who owes him a debt, a natural historian named Stoker who is as bad-tempered as he is mysteriously solitary. The baron tells Stoker to stay with Veronica and protect her with his life until he returns to retrieve her.
That night, the baron is murdered.
Veronica and Stoker do not learn this until a few days later. They manage to bond over natural history, but they butt heads about everything. Stoker is surly, and Veronica is neither scared of him nor hesitant to goad him. Both characters are fascinating separately, but together they add so much entertainment to the page. I could read about them doing literally anything.
Both characters can be rash in their own ways, as evidenced by Stoker when he immediately takes Veronica and hides them both at a traveling show, taking the baron’s last request completely seriously. Veronica still believes that the murder has little to do with her and that she isn’t the one in danger, but both she and Stoker become determined to discover who the guilty party is so they can move on and be rid of each other.
As more clues come to light, about the mystery and who they both are, they come to trust and respect each other, both as scientists and people, though still arguing and driving each other crazy all the while.
I came to love the idea that neither of them have any kind of background as detectives but that they combine their skills as scientists to figure things out. Veronica often leads the charge, making the boldest moves, but Stoker easily holds his own. (The knife-throwing scene and the fight scene are nice.)
Even though I’ve never read anything like Sherlock Holmes or Poroit (yet), I imagine this novel could be considered “mystery light” in that, while a mystery is the purpose of the plot of the novel, the characters are actually its driving force, the mystery itself coming somewhat second. Which is totally fine! I believe this could be a good start for anyone who wants to see if mystery is a genre they’re into. For mystery veterans, it may be a bit basic but at least it’s fun. Plus, Deanna Raybourn has a true gift with vocabulary and Victorian-style writing. My dictionary app got a lot of use because she effortlessly offered words that many writers just don’t use anymore–and they weren’t even particularly outlandish.
My hat’s off to Raybourn for another reason, too: she gave me another slowburn romance to be invested in.
Yes, there is a bit of intrigue between Veronica and Stoker, i.e. a lot of tension. Veronica is lovely and brilliant and not shy about flirting, and Stoker is handsome, also brilliant, and hilariously pent-up. It’s funny to watch Stoker cursing up a storm but then blushing at a passing suggestion from Veronica, his regard for privacy being challenged at every turn. Meanwhile, Veronica is stubborn–remember her no Englishman policy? That’s being tested here–and blithe about things that most Victorian women would never say in mixed company. They clash and mesh in so many interesting ways.
And okay, I’ll be honest, if you put both the “fake married” trope and “sharing a bed” trope unabashedly in your novel, I will instantly love it and you because I am, in fact, a sucker. (And she did it so masterfully! Nothing was rushed, nothing was forced! Bless, this is the kind of content I want!)
At least I admit it.
Overall, the outcome of the mystery was fulfilling while still promising longterm effects related to it down the road. I’m eager for Veronica and Stoker to work together again, to hash out other mysteries, and get into trouble in the process.
Which is why I’ve already started the sequel, A Perilous Undertaking. Stay tuned!