Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling by Michael Boccacino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was one of those "oh I wish there were a 4.5 rating" books!
When I started, I thought it would be Rebecca or Jane Eyre-esque: genteel widowed governess in a remote manor home with a recent widower and his two sons. But shortly into it I realized there was a serious dose of Jonathan Strange here.
We open with the murder of Nanny Prum. A witness swears there's a black man to blame, but the village constable thinks it was the work of a savage beast. One of the daily activities Nanny and the boys, James and Paul, did was to visit their recently dead mother's grave (they weren't dealing well with the death and somehow talking to her was going to help). Charlotte (aka Mrs. Markham) takes the boys there, too, but one day on their way back they wander into a fog and come out at a mysterious house, Darkling.
Clearly this isn't a normal house, because time passes differently here and Lilly, the boy's mother, is there to great them. Charlotte's a little perplexed and worried about this (who wouldn't be?) but the house itself and their host, Mr. Whately, combine to calm her nerves a little while the boys visit their mother. Of course they return, and Charlotte starts to explore the house: there's the library with books that can lead to other worlds, paintings that do the same, a collection of "deaths" and little wax men/candles to help guide her. What Charlotte would really like to do, however, is take the boys home permanently and continue her late night chats with
Mr. Darrow, her employer. Darkling is in The Ending, a world of weird, gruesome creatures and one with some sort of civil war brewing. Trying to get the boys home, she loses them to The Ending and returns to Everton to tell Mr. Darrow that his dead wife and living children are in another world? dimension? universe? As any good father would, he agrees to go help her fight for them and they return to The Ending... and too much more would be spoilers.
So, on to the quibbles. The era in which the book is set isn't stated, but it's clearly a previous century. At one point, the author describes Charlotte's composure as "Victorian" which felt just a little too meta - if this wasn't the Victorian Age, it was pretty damn close. The game that Charlotte and Mr. Whately play is confusing: we see her moves (because she tells us what she's doing) but his are unclear. Since he didn't kidnap the boys, that wasn't a move but somehow it seemed as though it might have been. Finally, the politics of The Ending were a mess. Was the strife about death? the humans entering? something more?
However, both the world of Everton and The Ending (nicely balanced names, right?) were well-realized and at times I actually wanted to visit Darkling. Maybe.
ARC provided by publisher.