A Curious Beginning is a delightful Victorian adventure romp that tells an exciting, mostly stand-alone story while setting readers up for an ongoing series. From the talented Deanna Raybourn, a pro at creating period settings that ring true, comes plucky heroine Veronica Speedwell, a no-nonsense young woman who very much knows her own mind.
Veronica is twenty-five years old, and so could be considered a spinster by the standards of that time period, but she truly doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Veronica has been raised by two elderly aunts who adopted her as a young orphan, and ever since she’s been grown enough to exercise some independence, she has set out to see the world while on expeditions to collect the finest and rarest butterfly specimens. A talented lepidopterist, Veronica doesn’t shrink from adventure, scientific or amorous, and has left a trail of lovers behind as well… but with stipulations:
Over time, I developed a set of rules from which I never deviated. Although I permitted myself dalliances during my travels, I never engaged in flirtations in England — or with Englishmen. I never permitted any liberties to gentlemen either married or betrothed, and I never corresponded with any of them once I returned home. Foreign bachelors were my trophies, collected for their charm and good looks as well as attentive manners. They were holiday romances, light and insubstantial as thistledown, but satisfying all the same.
The action kicks off with the death of the Veronica’s remaining aunt, leaving her on her own with no ties and no obligations. Almost immediately, however, she is thrust into danger, as a strange man ransacks her aunts’ cottage and appears on the verge of kidnapping her — which she escapes thanks to the assistance of yet another stranger, Baron von Stauffenbach, who whisks her off to London for protection and promptly stashes her for safekeeping with an associate, a young, dangerous-looking man by the name of Stoker. Stoker has wild hair and tattoos, wears an eyepatch, and is busy trying to taxidermy an elephant when Veronica is deposited into his care. Neither of the two are thrilled by their enforced companionship — but when the Baron is found murdered, they realize that they’ll be spending a lot more time together as they run from both the police and whichever mysterious villains are responsible for the Baron’s death.
Along the way, of course, the tension and hostility between Stoker and Veronica morph into trust, admiration, and perhaps something deeper too, although they’re too busy trying to outwit a host of pursuers and simply stay alive to have time to explore any feelings, romantic or carnal, that might pop up.
Veronica is a super-smart, nerves-of-steel, take-no-prisoners woman. She has a hatpin and isn’t afraid to use it! In temperament and repartée, she reminded me very much of Gail Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti — proper, demanding, capable, and unafraid, and prone to the most delicious quips and arguments. Her back and forth with Stoker is quite fun:
He shook his head as if to clear it. “I smoked opium once. It felt like listening to you, only rather more mundane.”
“Veronica, are you weeping?” he asked suspiciously.
“Don’t be ludicrous,” I returned tartly. “I do not weep. It is a symptom of the rankest sentimentality, and I am never sentimental.”
By the end of the novel, the two have joined a circus, escaped evil henchmen by jumping into the Thames, and burned down a warehouse, among other more sedate approaches to investigation. The mystery of the Baron’s death is resolved in a way that makes clear that while this chapter is more or less complete, there are plenty of loose ends and further threats to deal with in the future.
A Curious Beginning is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and should particularly appeal to readers who like Victorian settings with plenty of action thrown in. Veronica is a wonderful main character, and Stoker is intriguing — in that dark, broody, mysterious way that just might win him a spot on the “book boyfriends” list of quite a few readers. Together, the two bounce off one another constantly, making it clear that their surface disagreements and irritation are covers for an attraction and connection that are likely to continue deepening as this series progresses.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what sort of adventures await these two. This is a delightful start to a new series, and I look forward to reading much more.
Title: A Curious Beginning
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publication date: September 1, 2015
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley