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Friday, October 28, 2011


Author: Isabel Cooper
Plot Type: Historical Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings: Violence--4; Sensuality--4; Humor--2
Publisher and Titles: Sourcebooks Casablanca
     No Proper Lady (9/2011)
     Lessons After Dark (4/2012) 

     This blog entry was updated and revised on 4/26/12 to include a review of the second book in the series: Lessons After Dark. That review comes first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of the excellent book 1.

       BOOK 2: Lessons After Dark            
     Book 1 in this series had everything going for it: inventive world-building, compelling action, quirky characters, and sympathetic leads. Unfortunately, the second book turns completely away from Joan's post-apocalyptic world and is, instead, a plain vanilla historical paranormal romance. It's supposed to take place in the late 1880s, but you'd never know it from either the language or the behavior of the characters. The two strong leads from book 1 are relegated to the background—so far back that they are not even referred to by their first names. In this book, they are referred to in passing as Mr. and Mrs. Grenville, the founders of Englefield, a school for young people with magical abilities. And  Mrs. Grenville (aka Joan) never even gets a chance to wield her fabulous flash gun. Such a disappointment!

     The story in Lessons After Dark can be summed up in one sentence: A former sideshow medium and a doctor with magical healing powers fall in love and successfully battle a demon. Period. The end. The lead couple—Olivia Brightmore and Dr. Gareth St. John could have fallen out of any paranormal romance currently on the market. Each has, of course, a somewhat tragic past, and a magical talent. As always in these stories, when they work together, their magic becomes stronger. Gareth has a Darcy-like disdain for Olivia's tawdry past through most of the book, only putting it aside in the scenes in which he is actively lusting after her. Why Olivia loves him is anyone's guess because he is barely civil to her and seems to enjoy humiliating her at every opportunity. Except for her lustful capitulations to Gareth, Olivia is a smart, talented, and independent woman who has made her way in the world as best she could. We get some suggestions that Gareth has gone through a serious PTSD-type breakdown after suffering through harrowing wartime experiences, but that is just sketched in with no precise details. There is one false note: The story focuses on mysterious goings-on in the woods adjacent to Englefield, but everyone—including Simon Grenville—professes to know nothing about the forest being magical. Since Simon first discovered Joan in a magic circle in the center of that forest, his purported lack of knowledge is not at all logical.

     Read this book only if you absolutely love historical paranormals. It's not a terrible book; it's just an average book. You don't need to read book 1 to understand book 2, but read book 1 anyway because it's such a terrific story—and so much better than book 2.

    Based on the cover art, I thought that this would be a typical regency romance with a few witches tossed in, but I was wrong—and glad that I was. The series focuses on a group of magical mages/wizards/witches/warlocks/shamans in late Victorian England. Cooper doesn't label them, so choose your own term—I'm going to call the good guys mages and the bad guys sorcerers. Although the first book involves some time travel (both physical and astral), the main plot is set is 1888. The primary characters are all part of London society, where the exaltation of the occult is the current fashionable trend. This makes it easy for the true magicals to practice their spells and use their magic to protect mortals from dark supernatural forces.

       BOOK 1: No Proper Lady            
     If No Proper Lady were made into a movie, the heroine (Joan) could be played by Angelina Jolie in her Mrs. Smith assassin persona, but channeling the spirit of Eliza Doolittle. That heroine is Joan (named in honor of Joan of Arc), a skilled warrior from the future (2188) who is sent back in time 200 years so that she can stop the demonic sorcerer who dooms her post-apocalyptic world to domination by dark, demonic forces. Although we just see flashes of that world, we learn that the societal hierarchy is headed by demons, with the traitorous lords as their lackeys. Those lords breed humans like cattle to be fed to the demons. The free humans, of whom Joan was one, live a miserable existence in caves, where they are under constant battle by the monsters. In the opening scene, Joan's people perform a magical ritual that sends her back to 1888 so that she can save her world by destroying the villainous sorcerer, Alex Reynell, and his book of dark magic. The worst aspect of Joan's situation is that she will never be able to return to her home and family. If she succeeds in her mission, her world will develop in a totally different way, and no one will remember her. If she fails, her friends and family will be destroyed by the monsters.  

Here is how Joan describes it to Simon: 
     "There were rituals," Joan said. "I'm cut loose from time. That's how I could come back, and I guess it lets me survive any changes I make by being here. But that's just me. If I succeed...there'll be a different world two hundred years from now. Mine won't be there any more."
     "And if you fail?"
     "Then everyone I knew dies. Horribly." She shrugged, quickly and almost mechanically. "At the endjust before I camethe Dark Ones had broken in. My people might have fought them back that time, but...we were losing." (p. 127)     

     When a half-naked Joan pops into 1888 existence, she is inside a magical, glowing circle in the middle of a forest during a violent storm, faced by a handsome man named Simon Grenville. Simon is a practicing mage, so he has seen some magic in his time, but he's still shocked by Joan's appearance, especially by her nudity and by the flash gun that is plugged into a vein in her arm. (That gun draws in her powerful life force and expels it when she shoots it at the monsters.) Nevertheless, Simon pulls himself together enough to take her back to his country estate and listen to her story. As it turns out, Simon also wants to take down Alex Reynell. Alex and Simon were once the best of friends, but they became enemies when Simon wouldn't sanction Alex's use of the dark arts. In retaliation, Alex recently seduced Simon's younger sister (Eleanor) and possessed her with a demon. Simon was able to rescue Eleanor, but she has not yet recovered from her horrific experience. Now, Simon wants revenge, although he still believes that he can talk Alex into repudiating his demonic practices.

     After Joan explains her mission and describes her world, she and Simon come up with a plan that makes Joan the bait that draws Alex in. At first, Simon is fine with this plan, but then he starts to fall for Joan, and the situation heats up. The plot follows Joan and Simon as their plan unfolds. We also see some of the events from Alex's point of view. Since Joan comes from the future, she speaks with the idioms and, especially, the profanities of that time and has no concept of a 19th century lady's role in society, so Simon and Eleanor spend a great deal of time teaching her the necessary etiquette, dress, and mannerisms that she will need to pass as "a proper lady."

     This is an inventive world, with well-developed characters and a compelling story. Joan is a fascinating heroine, with her rough talk, expert knife skills, and passionate nature. Simon, too, is interesting. He accepts Joan as an equal in their mutual revenge plan and doesn't patronize her at all. If you've been disappointed with historical paranormal fiction before, I think that this book will change your mind. With its fresh approach and well-written story line, No Proper Lady is definitely worth your reading time.

    In a recent blog interview, Cooper said, "I really like post-apocalyptic weirdness, and I find both Victorian society and Victorian occultism fascinating. They’re both so intricate, with so many elaborate rules, that they become almost like games." In another blog interview, Cooper describes Isabel and Simon twitter-style, in 140 characters or less: "She’s an assassin from a future where demons rule Earth. He’s a Victorian occultist whose friend turned to a dark path. They fight crime!" Cooper says that each of the ENGLEFIELD books will share some characters, but they will basically be stand-alone novels.

Here, Simon and Joan discuss her literary preferences. Joan explains that she enjoyed James Joyce's Ulysses because one line had special meaning for her people:
     "Ulysses was great. I knew one of the lines already. I just never knew what it was from.....'Though much is taken, much abides.' They'd painted it above the main armory." She looked off into the distance. "I like it more now. There's such hope in that poem, in the face of everything." (p. 83)

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