What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? She had never met its powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadows, of the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She saw simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gift…
Gaslight fantasy is a genre I hadn’t heard of before this book. No, it’s not a genre where politicians deny having tweeting things they clearly tweeted. Gaslight fantasy is a bit like steampunk. It’s set in Victorian times, but instead of a sci-fi twist, everything is supernatural. Sign me the HECK UP YO!
I picked up this omnibus addition of The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker and the sequel The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker after Jenny Trout recommended it on her blog as one of her favourite novels. Because Jenny is hilarious in the streets and a savage behind the tweets, I instantly trusted her and bought it. Also, the book summary sounds utterly enchanting, like a romance version of the Doctor Who episode The Unquiet Dead. Sadly, this novel was NOT like that episode.
🐯 Hecking Cool Magic
The premise of the book is seriously cool. London on the verge of spiritual collapse, as hundreds of unquiet ghosts fly about the city, possessing people and causing destruction. Some may even be responsible for the Ripper murders. The only people who can restore balance in the city are a secret society called the Guard, who use magical abilities to bind spirits back into the afterlife.
Sadly, there are only a very few scenes where we see this ‘promise of the premise’ acted out. This is because most of the chapters focus on the romance plot, not spiritual action. On top of this, whilst the Six members of the Guard are fascinating, sadly only Alexi and Rebecca get more than cursory character development. I enjoyed the complex friendship between Alexi and Rebecca, but I felt it was a bit unnecessary for her to be unrequitedly in love with him.
The plot supposedly revolves around the Guard being torn between the mysterious Lucille Linden and Percy Parker as their prophesised seventh member, so I thought we’d see Percy and Lucille go head to head with their magical powers. However, no tension is ever created. Lucille just rocks up and doesn’t do anything for most of the book, but because the Guard are thick they all uncritically accept her without ever even looking into her backstory. Huh?!
Then, ALL the conflict comes from nowhere. The rest of the Guard decide they hate Percy without having met her, Alexi makes no attempt to change their minds, then they all decide they hate each other, Alexi marches off in a huff and as a result THE WORLD ALMOST EXPLODES but doesn’t. The end!
🐯 The cheese, the unbearable cheese
This is possibly the most clichéd book I’ve ever read, and I don’t say that lightly. Strangely Beautiful doesn’t just dabble in the cheese, it rolls itself blissfully through the fromage, throwing sticky bits of camembert at the ceiling. We have a prophecy of star crossed love, the reincarnations of two ancient gods, the lot. Le snort. So let’s meet our heroes…
🐯 Miss Mary Sue
Enter Miss Persephone Parker, aka the Chosen One. Percy isn’t like other girls, of course. She’s shy, timid, and so embarrassed by her ugly appearance. Percy suffers from the #tragic abilities of being supernaturally fluent in all the world’s known languages, being able to talk to ghosts, AND being able to foretell the future. She also spends her life wrapped in shawls and gloves to hide the fact that she’s basically an Aryan wet dream:
Tresses of lustrous, snow-white hair tumbled from their cloth-bound imprisonment, streaming like snowfall down the girl’s back…Luminous crystal eyes held streaks of pale shooting from tiny black pupils. A face youthful but devoid of color, smooth and unblemished like porcelain, was as graceful, well defined, and proportioned as a marble statue. Her long blanched locks shimmered in the candlelight like spider silk. Upon high cheekbones – you know what I’m actually just going to stop there because I can’t take this any more.
As you can see, SO ugly. Poor Percy, life is sooooo hard! So talentless, so unspecial, so ugly. How could any man ever accept her!
Don’t get me wrong, I have a big problem calling any high powered female character ‘unrealistic’ or a ‘Mary Sue’. We accept male Chosen Ones all the damn time, and female characters should be allowed to be amazingly beautiful, talented, and good all at the same time because guess what – many real women are actually like this. But the problematic trope of a heroine who can only acknowledge that she’s talented and beautiful if men tell her it’s true makes me want to head desk. Thanks, One Direction.
The whole shebang with Percy’s Uber White Mensch appearance being so ‘awful’ is especially tastelessly handled when she meets the book’s solo woman of colour, the librarian Mina Wilberforce. Yes her name is WILBERFORCE. headdesk headdesk headdesk
The librarian abruptly straightened up and gasped… ‘Miss, I should apologize. I thought you were…’
‘A ghost,’ Percy finished… ‘It’s understandable.’
The librarian came closer. ‘Of all the things,’ she said softly, her tone rueful. ‘Of all the things a woman like me ought never do is react to a person’s skin color as if it were shocking.’
In my opinion, what a fucking undermining thing to have Mina say. These characters live in a London less than two generations since slavery was outlawed… and Hieber thinks it would be normal to EQUATE PERCY’S UBER WHITENESS TO THE LIVED EXPERIENCES OF A BLACK WOMAN???? *headdesk forever*
🐯 The Sexy Professor
Playing opposite Percy is the dashingly sexy Professor Snape Lord Byron Mr Rochester Professor Alexi Rychman:
Percy’s breath caught. Here stood the most striking man she had ever seen. Lustrous dark hair hung loosely to broad shoulders. A few locks turned out in an unkempt manner contrary to the rest of his restrained appearance; his noble, chiselled countenance featured a long nose, high cheekbones, defined lips like a Grecian sculpture, and impossibly dark eyes.
Excuse me whilst I lol my way into the sun.
I genuinely did enjoy both of these characters, so I decided lap up all this silliness and get into the romance. Because Percy is terrible at maths (when will this trope die ) Alexi has to give her private tutoring. Oh my gosh, does anyone have any idea where this is going??? Anyone!???
That’s right guys, student teacher romance! Percy is 18, and Alexi is 36. #CanUNot #NoSrsly #Eew
The romance mainly consists of Alexi sweeping about in a black cloak, Alexi’s hair blowing in the wind, Alexi’s aquiline nose something something, Percy’s trembling lips something something, Alexi yelling about Shakespeare, Percy’s bosom heaving, Alexi glowering whilst thunder claps in the background and Percy swoons on his desk. It’s all delightfully predictable, and utterly, FABULOUSLY STUPID.
🐯 Victoriana Gloriana
It’s clear that Hieber really wants the reader to feel immersed in the Victorian setting of this novel, to the point of feeling like the book itself is Victorian. Careful attention has been paid to the writing style and language to make it read like an gothic novel, in the style of Jane Eyre. Without a doubt, the descriptions of the smog and the dirt and beauty of London’s architecture and landscape were vivid and beautifully done. One of this novel’s key strengths is how gorgeously it captures aesthetic details like moonbeams on a window, or the flick of a lamp in a dusty study.
However, at times the actions of the characters within this Victorian landscape were a little too cheesy to be real. This is the type of London where plucky chimney sweeps appear on street corners saying ‘Cor blimey guvna!’, whilst choirs of flower girls dance along to ‘I Feel Pretty’ in the background and Dickens twirls his moustache. At times the writing could overdo it too, as Hieber would occasionally use turns of phrase that were just too darn cheesy. For example…
🐯 Shakespeare Overload
Characters are obsessed with comparing their lives to Shakespeare, and I mean OBSESSED. Is endless quotation of Shakespeare is supposed to make the novel feel more legitimately period? I’m pretty sure everyone in Victorian London wasn’t constantly quoting Shakespeare. Or is it just supposed to make this book feel more SERIOUS and #DRAMATIC? If so, it had literally the opposite effect. It was laughable.
Alexi is constantly referred to as ‘My dark prince’, or some other explicit reference to Hamlet, to the point where it made me want to bash my head against the wall. OKAY, HE’S DARK AND BROODING AND TRAGIC. WE GET IT. Every time the Six are about to go into a dangerous situation – EVERY TIME – one of them says ‘Once more unto the breach my friends, once more.’ FFFFFFFSSS
I would say that the following passage of romance between Alexi and Percy represents a pretty accurate gauge of the intense cheese/ Shakespearean melodrama of this novel. If you can hack it, read on merrily! If not, stay the heck away for your own safety.
‘Poor Ariel, my sweet cipher. Don’t let the tempest claim you. I only wish I could,’ he murmured, kissing her moist forehead.
His lips lingered upon her a moment too long; he was desperate to place his aching lips upon her lifeless ones, rouse her like the prince did Sleeping Beauty. Finally he drew back, fighting a wealth of emotion he could not indulge, and fled. He must kill his heart once and for all, for it was a useless mortal contrivance that he abhorred.
Hey, maybe this novel is actually just supposed to read like a real Victorian penny dreadful. If so it did a good job, because it certainly is dreadful, in the BEST way.
I know I’ve fully roasted on this book, but I hope you can tell it was a loving roast. I love the atmospheric setting, and I’m interested to read more about the Guard’s bananas ghosty adventures. The sequel is sat on my shelf, so I’m curious to see whether I can stick out the next 200 pages of hilariously gooey romance without laughing.
Three and a half tigers!
Chat with me!
Have any of you read cheesy romances recently? What do you think about Victorian fantasy? And who are you top most ridiculous Mary Sue heroines? Let me know below!