The Music of the Night, by Lydia Joyce

>> Monday, January 02, 2006

I adored Lydia Joyce's debut, The Veil of Night, loved the plot, the characters, the writing, everything! Therefore, the minute her latest release, The Music of the Night (excerpt) I bought it and had it couriered to Montevideo. Well, to be honest, I'd have done the same even if I hadn't read TVON. The reviews I read made it sound fascinating, and knowing it was set in 19th century Venice was too good to resist!

Sarah Connolly has left her bleak life of desperate poverty to become a lady's companion to an elderly woman. But in Venice, Sarah soon discovers there is a darker side to the family she has been thrust among, and walking just beyond her newfound hope is a mysterious, shadowy figure. What lurks behind his mask is a darkness that compels her...and a passion that makes her doubt everything she wants.

Sebastian Grimsthorpe, Lord Wortham, one enjoyed a carefree life, but it ended in an explosion of betrayal and violence. Escaping death, he embraces the appearance of it, concealing himself in shadows and behind masks so that he can exacta pitiless revenge upon the man who so nearly destroyed everything he holds dear. But his quest will take an unexpected turn when he is suddenly shaken by a woman whose tragic eyes mystify him--and seduce him into a world of secrets and deceptions.
Like TVON, this has to be among the freshest, most original and just plain different books I've read this year. They are quite different from each other, both of Joyce's books, but they share the most important things: wonderful characters, good writing and fascinating stories. Dark, lush, erotic and exotic, TMOTN is all that and more. A B+, and only some quibbles with the ending kept it from getting a higher grade.

As much as I adored the setting (and it was beautifully done, vivid and atmospheric and evocative), it was the characterization of Sebastian and Sarah that made the book rise so high above the norm. Joyce has created two characters who aren't perfect and know it very well, and who have a huge core of raw honesty inside them, especially when it comes to themselves.

I especially loved Sarah. I appreciated her pragmatism and admired her, both for the way she'd pulled herself up by the bootstraps after a truly horrid beginning and made something of herself, and for being painfully honest to herself about her motivations and wants. There's no coyness or missishness in her at all, but neither does she do the "I'm such a horrible person for having been a prostitute" song and dance. She doesn't beat herself up about the choices she's had to make. She knows perfectly well she did the best she could and she's reached a point in her life in which she respects herself. And yet, she isn't perfectly strong and invincible, both because her station in life is still precarious and because the pox-marks on her face have really done a number on her self-confidence. Not only does she feel utterly unattractive, and is thus easy prey for a man who seems to be attracted to her (and she knows perfectly well that this is so), she knows her scars tell people more about her childhood than she would like them to know.

I'm very pleased to say Joyce handles the revenge plot that's central to her story wonderfully. I tend to find revenge stories unsatisfying. I've read plenty of books in which the hero has no problem punishing an innocent for his or her father/mother/whatever's sins... the "he ruined my innocent sister so I'll ruin HIS innocent sister" school of thought, which is the quickest way to make a hero not be a hero in my mind. Or the perceived slight amounts to nothing more than hurt pride and yet the hero (because it's usually the hero, in these cases) seems bent on unleashing the most horrible consequences on his opponent and everyone around him.

In this case, it's not like that at all. Sebastian had very, very good reasons to want revenge against de Lint, and I appreciated the complexity of his feelings about this, his self-loathing and his doubts about whether he's not just as bad as the man he wants revenge against. Also, while his plot is slightly beyond the pale in certain ways (I'd definitely agree with Sarah in this), I think I'd forgive this aspect. It doesn't stem from a cruel intention to wound, but from a miscalculation. He really didn't mean for his plan to have the effect it would have had on this person (I hate to have to be cryptic!), and he let himself be blinded by his need for revenge about the fact that it would.

I thought Sebastian's behaviour towards Sarah was perfectly done. His misconception about her was wholly understandable, and I liked that he was still unaccountably attracted to her even when he thought she'd been de Lint's accomplice. And in apparent contradiction to this, I also liked that his convictions were strong enough that he acted on his revenge against Sarah (who he didn't really *know* at this point, let's be clear) in spite of his attraction towards her. He is attracted to her, but he doesn't compromise his principles because of it. And when he realizes he's been wrong, he's suitably chagrined and he is, again, completely honest to himself about why he might have made that mistake.

The relationship between these two is just beautiful. I loved how Sebastian is so completely unjudgemental about Sarah's past and how he immediately sets out to give her what she craves and needs, a sense of authority and control over her surroundings. I truly got the sense that it was real love that was slowly developing between them, and the obstacles to that love seemed perfectly justified on both sides.

The only area in which I though the story faltered somewhat was in the very last pages, when the truth finally comes out. I can't really discuss this without spoilers, so just highlight the next few lines to read it:

Whitby's whole convoluted plot was just too, well, convoluted to be believable. I never suspected, I must acknowledge that, even if Joyce did give us a little clue about Gian in his suggestion that it might be easier to provide de Lint with real reluctant virgins instead of whores who could pretend to be reluctant virgins.

Apart from this, the whole "de Lint isn't truly evil" realization Sebastian has... I was going "no, no, no!!!" all the way through. I'm sorry, but the man is evil. He didn't rape Sebastian's 12-year-old daughter, ok, but he was perfectly happy to deflower unconsenting 12-year-old Venetian girls sold to him by their mothers! And he very definitely would have raped Sarah. Is that not evil enough? He deserved SO much worse than he ultimately got!


And after this huge spoiler, I'll close this by saying that, with these two books, Lydia Joyce has now comfortably settled in my (very short these days) autobuy list.

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