Whispers of the Night, by Lydia Joyce

>> Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lydia Joyce was one of my best discoveries last year. She had her first two books out in 2005, and both of them made my Top 10 Picks of 2005 list. The Veil of Night was very different from The Music of the Night, and her latest, Whispers of the Night (excerpt), is very different from them both.

When four London seasons fail to find her a suitable match, Alcyone Carter does the unthinkable and treks across Europe to marry a foreign nobleman she's never met. But on her wedding night, she discovers her handsome, enigmatic husband is not the man he claimed to be. Rather than live a lie, she escapes his estate into the darkness.

But her husband-ignited by his desire and pride--risks everything to follow her from the depths of the forests into the decadent heart of an empire, where they're forced to confront the passion they've discovered--and the dire threat that could cost them both their lives.
WOTN is different from Joyce's previous book, I say, but only in terms of things like setting and tone and type of plot. When it comes to the things that really make a book for me, like the characterization, the writing, and so on, it's just like those two... just as good. It's the best of both worlds: I get variety, but not variety in quality. A B+.

After four Seasons without finding a husband, Alcyone Carter has all but given up on the idea. So Alcy takes a bold step: she'll marry an impoverished foreign aristocrat, thus getting the title her merchant father wants for her. She doesn't do it lightly and takes plenty of precautions, from securing part of her bridal portion in her name, to corresponding with her future husband for some months.

The book starts as Alcy arrives at her betrothed's castle on the Hungary/Romania border, after a long and exhausting trip. And the minute she sets foot on it, she finds herself practically dragged to the chapel and married on the spot, still wearing her travel-stained clothes.

The reason for this haste becomes clear to the very intelligent Alcy the minute she gets a chance to catch her breath and think: the man she's married is not her fiancé, and she's not even in the geographical location she thought she was. Instead of Baron Benedek, of Hungary, the man who's now her husband is Romanian count Dumitru Constaninescu.

When Alcy comes out with her conclusions, right during their wedding night dinner, Dmitru is chagrined, but confesses it all. He'd been reading Baron Benedek's letters, and since he needs a great deal of money, when he saw the Baron was going to marry a very rich Englishwoman, Dmitru decided to steal her and marry her himself.

Alcy is understandably upset at the deception, but several things make her decide to carry on with the marriage. For one thing, she wasn't particularly particularly attached to the Baron (she didn't even know him, really), so there's not much difference between marrying this impoverished aristocratic stranger or that one, especially once Dmitru explains that many of the promises Benedek had made wouldn't have been fulfilled. But most decisive of all, Alcy finds Dmitru extremely attractive, and she likes the fact that this man still seems to be attracted to her once her intelligence and forceful personality become clear.

But after only a couple of months of a very promising beginning to their marriage, Alcy faces yet another betrayal from Dmitru, and that's more than she can bear. She runs from him, unleashing a chain of events that puts them both in mortal danger.

Both Alcy and Dmitru are what I've come to expect from Joyce: complex, believable, original characters. Nothing is simplistic about them, and Joyce takes no shortcuts in showing us who they are and how they feel about each other and themselves. I'm not going to go into a description about who exactly they are, because it would take pages... that's how amazingly done they both were, but I was especially captivated by the nuances in things like Alcy's attitude towards her beauty or Dmitru's internal contradictions between the enlightened and the feudal parts of his personality.

I also loved the the development of their feelings for each other, especially Alcy's for Dmitru. Her eyes were wide open with him, and it wasn't unthinking adoration. Her love for him felt much more real for it.

From the reviews and blog posts I've read, it seems to me that most people enjoyed this very much right up to the point when Alcy runs away from Dmitru. My position is a bit different.

Yes, I enjoyed the first half of the book much better than the second, but it wasn't because I thought Alcy's actions in running from her husband were TSTL. Not at all, I completely understood why the woman acted as she did. The way I see it, she had been able to forgive Dmitru's initial lies mainly because it wasn't something he was doing to her. There was an impersonal quality to his actions, he wasn't deceiving Alcyone Carter, he was stealing "Benedek's English Bride".

What he was trying to do now, however, he was doing to the wife he'd been passionately making love to for months, the woman he'd been showing affection and tenderness, the woman he'd come to know very well. And that made it betrayal, rather than just trickery. Add to that the way Alcy felt about what he was planning to take from her (it's the fruit of endless labour and sacrifice on her part, after all), and I was cheering her on when she ran.

Plus, I also considered that she had no knowledge at all about her husband's extracurricular activities. She had no way of knowing that his spying made it so dangerous for him to be caught.

But as much as I sympathized with Alcy's reasoning, I still thought the book took a downward turn after she ran. In my opinion, Joyce is best at character-driven conflict, and Alcy and Dmitru's adventures weren't as fantastic as the initial section.

They were much better than average, though. I especially liked that they weren't portrayed as superheroes, not even Dmitru. I thought it read exactly like it would have been in real life, a smart but decidedly human man and an inexperienced woman trying to outwit people, some of which were easy to outwit, some not. But they have bad luck and make mistakes, mistakes anyone might make. There's a point there near the end where I feared Joyce was going to turn the notoriously untactful and forthright Alcy into some kind of legendary seductress, but the way she turned this on its head was just perfect.

The main problem, however, was that it all went on a bit too long. It felt like it was never going to end. Almost exactly 50 pages from the end, when they're captured for what felt like the millionth time, Alcy thinks "Oh, damn, not again", and I found myself laughing, because it so exactly echoed what I was thinking.

On the whole, however, I thought this was a wonderful book. In addition to all the above, we get a fascinating, extremely original setting (Romania and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century? That's not to be seen in your regular romance!) and beautiful writing. I can't wait for the next book!


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