Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: Lessons After Dark by Isabel Cooper

Olivia Brightmore has come to Englefield to share her unique knowledge with the students of the school. It is a small school in an isolated part of the country, with few students so Olivia is surprised to encounter someone who knew of her former profession.

At the height of England's fascination with the occult and the paranormal, Olivia used her talent (and a few lessons in dramatics) and worked as a medium to entertain London with seances and fortune telling.

Gareth St. John was at one of those performances and he thinks Olivia is a fraud and a trickster. He is skeptical and suspicious -- afraid of what sort of tricks Olivia would teach the young minds at Englefield.

But Olivia proves that she is more than capable and guides the students through lessons on wards and protection, as well as on how they can better control their powers.

All is well inside Englefield -- but, outside, dark forces are threatening to cross over to the human world. Can Gareth and Olivia, together with the students at Englefield, defend their school (and possibly England) against this dark threat?

I did a Sample Reading of this book last year and had very good impressions of the first few chapters.

Olivia is a widow who is grateful for the opportunity the Grenvilles have given her. She never loved playing a medium but she had very little choice when her husband died and left her near-penniless. Englefield is a fresh start for her -- a chance at a new future and new connections.

She meets resistance, though, when Gareth St. John, the school physician recognizes her and accuses her of fraud -- even when she had proved her ability, Gareth observed her classes, as though to make certain that everything is right and proper.

Is it suspicion or attraction? Initially, Gareth was certain of his intentions on monitoring the new teacher -- but as he gets to know Olivia and her secrets, he realizes that there is something more that lies between the two of them. Could they take the risk of losing their positions? Their reputations?

As the story proceeds, I kept waiting for the author to shift from exposition to action -- and I wasn't happy with the dramatic structure -- too much time (and too many chapters) were spent on daily life at the school and the kids lessons and on world building. The story only picks up and gains momentum at Chapter 29 when the dark force decide to rear its ugly head.

I also did not get a clear sense of the conflict. If the conflict was Gareth St. John's suspicion of Olivia's true ability and her fraudulent past, it wasn't resolved well: it was obvious that Olivia possessed a natural ability when she helped Elizabeth down in Chapter 2 -- and, yet, it took Gareth a long time before confronting her of her past occupation (Chapter 36) -- in between, it was an uneven mix of suspicious surveillance and attraction.

Gareth watched Mrs. Brightmore. She still looked like a respectable young widow, not the sort who'd know anything about danger, let alone hostile magic. The impression lasted until he met her eyes.

She was good at deceit. Gareth knew that. He knew there could be multiple layers to trickery, and Mrs. Brightmore could be pretending to worry about her students and pretending to not quite hide it. He knew those things, and yet he couldn't bring himself to think that the fear he saw was anything but real. It was a species he knew too well not to recognize.
- p. 96

* * *

A woman could invent a husband, or a hundred if she wanted. It was nothing to him. He'd never really stopped to consider whether she had any right to the "Mrs." before her name.


He would almost have preferred to believe her husband a fiction.
- p. 105

Despite my complaints, I still think Isabel Cooper is a great new author and I will continue to follow her series. Here's why:

She does a wonderful job of developing the mythos she has created in her debut novel, No Proper Lady. Her description of the "other" world and of how individual powers manifest is spellbinding and fantastic. It is evocative and imaginative -- Cooper has a gift for description and I haven't been this engaged and captivated by a world since Amanda Quick's Arcane series.

I also loved the students at Englefield and Isabel Cooper fleshes out their personalities clearly, especially her female characters. This is Cooper's other gift: her female characters kick ass. They are beautiful and capable. They aren't ladies who need rescuing but are the ones who do the rescuing. They don't need protecting because they are the ones who protect. I am glad that Charlotte's story is next and I look forward to reading it.

She'd made paying audiences think she could summon the dead and float crystal balls around. Keeping her countenance around one man should not, would not, be a problem. Even so, she chose the plainest of her black skirts and a high-collared shirtwaist in dark grey and pinned her hair up in the primmest knot she could manage.

At times like these, a woman did need some armor.
- p. 152

Lessons After Dark is the second book in Isabel Cooper's Englefield series. The next book, Curious Affairs at Midnight is coming out in June. To find out more about Isabel Cooper and her books, visit her website.



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