Borrower of the Night, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Monday, June 17, 2013

TITLE: Borrower of the Night
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Peters

PAGES: 304

SETTING: 1970s Germany
TYPE: Mystery / Thriller
SERIES: Prequel to the Vicky Bliss series

A missing masterwork in wood, the last creation of a master carver who died in the violent tumult of the sixteenth century, may be hidden in a medieval German castle in the town of Rothenburg. The prize has called to art historian Vicky Bliss, drawing her and an arrogant male colleague into the forbidding citadel and its dark secrets. But the treasure hunt soon turns deadly. Here, where the blood of the long-forgotten damned stains ancient stones, Vicky must face two equally perilous possibilities. Either a powerful supernatural evil inhabits this place . . . or someone frighteningly real is willing to kill for what Vicky is determined to find.
The Vicky Bliss series is one of my favourites. It includes one of the most satisfying, exciting romances I've ever read, that between Vicky and art thief John Smythe. However, before meeting in Street of the Five Moons each were introduced in separate books. John is a minor character in The Camelot Caper, and Vicky stars in this one.

As the book starts, Vicky is a history professor in a small Midwestern university. She's in a relationship with a fellow professor, Tony, who keeps pestering her to marry him. Vicky is no fool, though. She's familiar with Tony's type, and she knows full well that no matter how much he promises to respect her opinions and her career, after a couple of years he'll be demanding his dinner on the table every night and for her to sacrifice any career advancement to aid his.

When they run across a clue to the location of a lost masterpiece, the search for it turns into a sort of battle of the sexes between them. Before long, they're in Southern Germany, skulking along the corridors of the castle of the Drachensteins, now turned into a hotel. But they're not the only ones skulking, and very strange things are happening, from walking suits of armour to the castle's heiress' apparent possession by the spirit of one of her ancestresses.

I had a blast reading this. Peters really goes to town with the setting and the plot. The atmosphere is amazing. There are hidden passageways and mysterious bones, secret compartments and the mystery of what actually happened to the lost masterpiece. You'd expect the latter to be simply a McGuffin, but it isn't, it's much too well-developed and fascinating for that. Peters uses it, an altarpiece made by a master carver (Riemenschneider, who I was surprised to learn was a real person), to bring to life the Peasants' Revolt in early 14th century Germany, and we also get to investigate with Vicky the real story of the Count of that time and his Spanish wife, who was burnt as a witch.

But the main delight is Vicky herself, the tall, buxom blonde who wishes she was petite, dark-haired and with a heart-shaped faced, the kind of woman who doesn't look like a Valkyrie, and who doesn't get men constantly talking to her boobs. She's brave and brilliant and sensible, and has got a very attractive self-deprecating sense of humour. She's also wonderfully self-aware, and doesn't let herself get away with any dissembling about her own motives. I don't know if I'd love her as much if I was reading this for the first time, without knowing her already (and having in mind the extremely rounded character she becomes in the series), but I suspect I might.

In addition to a great heroine and a fun plot, Peters populates her book with fantastic secondary characters. There's the heiress to the castle, who happens to fit Vicky's ideal woman definition to a T, a well-known adventurer who's also after the lost masterpiece, a seemingly humourless German doctor, the evil dowager countess, and Schmidt. Schmidt doesn't really shine here. He's even a bit boring, nothing like the jaw-dropping character he becomes later on, but the other characters make up for it in colour and energy.

And finally, I absolutely adored the very subversive ending to the romance. I've already given away that Vicky's HEA is with someone who's not on this book, so I might as well be spoilerish. I still remember reading this some 20 years ago, when I didn't know what was coming, and being very afraid when Vicky is told by one of her suitors that a woman like her needs a man like him, someone who can master her. I'd been reading too many old-school romances, you see, and I thought that was it, that my lovely strong, intelligent heroine was going to turn into one of those weak-minded idiots. When she didn't, I practically stood up and cheered.

MY GRADE: It's a B+ for me, although I expect someone without my prior experiences with the series and ensuing goodwill towards it might like it a little bit less.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: Like the Amelia Peabody series, this is narrated by Barbara Rosenblat. I didn't love her here as much as usual, mainly because I'm not sure if the voice she did for Vicky was what I expected or imagined. Other than that, though, she narrates with verve and energy, very well-suited to the caper she's reading.


Barb in Maryland 17 June 2013 at 19:44  

Well, you see, being a petite brunette with a few pounds more than necessary, I always envied Vicki her inches. I especially love the scene (can't remember if it is in this book) where she wears this fabulous cape and knows that she rocks the look.
Thanks for revisiting one of my favorite series.

Rosario 19 June 2013 at 06:51  

So did I, Barb, and it's a testament to what an amazing sense of humour Peters has given her that I didn't hate Vicky for her moaning about being tall, blonde and buxom! Can't remember the cape scene, but I'm planning to reread them all, so I'll get there! :)

Christine,  24 July 2013 at 21:06  

Vicky Bliss is a work of art herself. I thank Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters for creating such amazing, intelligent and interesting female characters long before it became a fashionable thing to do. When you look at the original publication date of this book and how Vicky acts and triumphs I am always half amazed it got published. One of my favorite parts of the book is Vicky walking along thinking about how her benighted boyfriend's ideas about feminism are haywire. It's not about trying to prove you are superior and how she would have given him a ride if she had a car! Genius.

Rosario 27 July 2013 at 08:27  

Christine: I've always been amazed at how overtly and unashamedly feminist Barbara Michaels' books were, even right at the beginning (and we're talking late 60s and 70s here). It's why I don't give romances of that time a free pass. They could and should have done better.

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