Keeper Shelf: The Dark Days Club by Allison Goodman

Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.

If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!

Before I encountered the first two books in Allison Goodman’s Dark Days Club trilogy, I would have said I was growing tired of Regency-set novels, that I’d encountered too many with virginal heroines, brooding heroes with Dark Secrets, and multiple descriptions of pelisses. But occasionally a book comes along that can invigorate historical romance in ways that make it feel so new and exciting that I want to jump up and dance a reel (which are described in engagingly vivid detail in this book). I have what I realize is a deeply solipsistic feeling that this series was made for me, and I’m not sure how I’m going to wait for the third and final book.

For the sake of full disclosure, Goodman’s series is somewhat sparing in the romance category, although she seems to be setting the stage for potentially swoon-worthy events in the last book (unless she’s planning to rip my heart out instead). While the aristocratic world in which its heroine Lady Helen moves is more of the Georgette Heyer variety, the Dark Days Club is pretty much what would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pride and Prejudice had a beautiful baby together—as others have also noted, albeit in less gestational terms.

Now I know what you might be thinking: haven’t we already had a spate of fiction that makes explicit the (mostly) latent violence of Jane Austen’s world? From the spoof trailer Jane Austen Fight Club to the lazy, disappointing mashup book/movie versions of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the somewhat endearing Immortal Jane Austen books, it has been done. But what is new for me is someone doing it so damn well. And with a refreshing lack of irony.

That’s not to say that Goodman’s books don’t have a sense of humor. They certainly do, primarily focalized through the sly wit of Lady Helen. We get a sense of this in the first few pages, when Helen—forced by her aunt to pick out a new riding habit— leafs through images of the “overdone” styles:

“Is it too much to ask for a dress that won’t scare the horse?”

Aunt Lenore gave her loud cackle—the one that earned her the title Lady Laugh amongst her friends and Lady Hee-Haw amongst her enemies. “Not this Season, my dear. It is all military flimflam.”

“Bonaparte has a lot to answer for,” Helen said. “First Europe and now our fashion.”

But Goodman also takes her characters seriously, and brings them to life with an earnest level of care and detail that made me as a reader genuinely invested in their well being.

But at this point perhaps a brief summary is in order: the books begin in 1812, as Lady Helen Wrexhall is preparing for her debut. As the daughter of a scandalous mother who—along with her husband, the Earl of Hayden—died a decade previously under mysterious and possibly treasonous circumstances, Helen is keenly aware that the more pessimistic part of society is fully expecting her to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Although she has been raised as a dutiful aristocratic woman of her day, Helen worries that her mother’s scandals will come back to haunt her. Which they do, albeit not in a way she could have expected. It turns out that, like her mother, Helen is gifted with Reclaimer powers, which enable her to fight Deceivers, demons inhabiting human bodies.

Under the tutelage of the brooding Lord Carlston, a fellow Reclaimer, Helen learns to develop her powers and wrestles with abandoning her expectations of a domestic life. Not only is she a Reclaimer, but she’s also a direct inheritor. In other words, she’s inherited her power from her mother, which is rare and unusual because Reclaimers usually spring up randomly, not from the same bloodline. The birth of a direct inheritor is said to be a sign that there’s a Grand Deceiver (ie: some serious Big Bad) on its way. By the end of the second book, the threat of an as yet unrevealed Grand Deceiver is looming, and Helen is caught in a love triangle, torn between Carlston and a family friend, the eligible but far less Byronic Duke of Selburn.

But these are the large story arcs, which might sound relatively familiar—a summary doesn’t do justice to the rich world building. Not only is there a complex and persuasive mythology with the world of Reclaimers and Deceivers, but the by-now overly familiar Regency-era setting felt new again with the attention to urban geographies (London in the first novel, and Brighton in the second) and historical detail. I’ve always had a perverse fascination with how most fiction elides human necessities, so I was delighted to read about Helen wryly pondering the “bourdaloue—shaped, amusingly, like a lady’s slipper,” which would be slipped…

…up under the hoop of her Court gown in case she needed to relieve herself during the long wait to be called. Now that was a difficult maneuver, Helen thought, her unruly sense of humor rising into a smile. Especially in a screened corner of a Royal stateroom. What if someone dropped one? Her imagination conjured the sound of smashing porcelain and the stink of warm spreading piss.

While historical romances and YA novels can often fashion heroines who are improbably modern, Helen is more believably of her time. She isn’t opposed to marriage, and she enjoys clothes, balls, and spending time with her female friends. Although she’s intelligent, lively, better educated, and somewhat more transgressive than the average titled woman of her day, she’s not a glaring anachronism. As she declares to Lord Carlston when he informs her of her powers and what he sees as her destiny:

“All you have shown me is a world of danger and threat, and yet you expect me to step into it without even asking me if I wish to do so.” He opened his mouth as if to argue, but she held up her hand, forestalling him. “I am no warrior sir, nor do I aspire to be. I have been taught to sew and sing and dance, and my duty is to marry, not fight demons. Look at me: I am an Earl’s daughter, not a man versed in swords and fisticuffs.”

The books depict Helen seriously grappling with the paranormal world into which she’s been thrust, and not immediately embracing the powers and responsibilities thrust upon her. As her maid, confidant, and woman-in-arms Darby observes to Helen as she comes to terms with her new role: “You must live the kind of woman’s life that has never been lived before. As must I.”

Rather than eagerly assuming a mantle of modern feminism, Helen struggles convincingly to make it fit in ways that resonate with current debates, but don’t feel out of place. For example, in depicting Carlston teaching Helen to pass as male in order to carry out some of her Reclaimer duties, the conversation calls to mind more recent feminist discussions of how much space women are allowed to take up, now situated within Helen’s world, context, and fashion:

“You must take up more space when you walk and move with greater purpose.”

Space and purpose. Helen took an experimental step alongside the flimsy fence that safeguarded the sheer drop to the beach. The hem of her promenade gown brought her up short…She had no difficulty with the idea of more purpose. Surely that was just a matter of taking a longer stride–something that would be far more achievable when she was clad in breeches…Her manner, however, was not so easily stitched into masculinity. According to his lordship, she still needed to deepen her voice, be less careful with the placement of her arms and legs, and now also take up more space. No easy task, since she had spent most of her life learning to control any excess gesture or movement.

And speaking of Lord Carlston… Do you want a tortured earl with all the trappings of an alpha hero who also manages to be a beta? You’ve got your man! Carlston might not reach William Godwin levels of enlightened Romantic-era male when it comes to views about women and women’s rights. But we get to see him learning to genuinely respect, admire, and even to defer to Helen as the story progresses. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the way their relationship unfolds, if light on fulfillment, is so heavy on the smolder (their sexual tension practically makes peak Mulder and Scully look platonic) that it manages to tide you over.

As an English PhD student, I’ve been trained to strive for critical distance. But one of the joys of reading romance and romance-adjacent novels is that you can relinquish that Enlightenment legacy/myth of “neutrality.” Of course, another less detached legacy of the Enlightenment era is the beginning of mass literacy, and the explosion in popularity of the novel. Re-reading another Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, reminds us that we’ve been having roughly the same conversations about the joys and sorrows of novel reading for over two centuries. As Jane Austen puts it: “Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.”

More than many books I’ve read in the last few years, the Dark Days Club series has helped remind me of the joy I can derive from reading a novel. With a few exceptions (the first 3 or 4 books in the Outlander series, Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, and perhaps Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles), I haven’t been a big fan of the historical fantasy that I’ve encountered. I can’t quite seem to get on board with steampunk, and I couldn’t make it through any of the recent spate of mostly Victorian-set series about magic. I truly hope that Goodman’s series is a sign of more exciting things to come from publishers of female-centric historical fantasy-romance (I also hope it’s a sign that more places will start publishing these kinds of books). At the same time, she’s set a pretty a high bar.

The Dark Days Club comes from Cailey’s Keeper Shelf! Cailey came late to reading romance but has been making up for lost time, quite possibly to the detriment of her dissertation. Because she’s specializing in Romantic-era British literature, she feels like reading Regencies counts as research…right? And when a Regency comes with amazing historic detail, detailed mythology, and an ass-kicking heroine reminiscent of her beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer she’s a goner, which is why The Dark Days Club has a special spot on her keeper shelf.

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