Posted in: AztecLady Reviews, reviews
Tags:Gothic romance, Historical romance, Sandra Schwab
This new school gothic romance is set in Germany during the late 1820s. The novel begins, rather depressingly, with Celia’s father’s funeral, followed by the reading of his will. In short order, we learn the basic facts revealed by the book’s blurb:
Into the Darkness
Celia Fussell’s father was dead, and she was reduced to the status of a poor relation in the house of her brother—the new baron—and his shrewish wife. A life of misery loomed ahead.
But, no. There was hope. Deep in the Black Forest, in the Great Duchy of Baden, was Celia’s inheritance. Among fir trees so dark they almost looked black, the Castle of Wolfenbach rose, a skeletal ruin adorned by gargoyles where even locals feared to tread. It was a fortress of solitude, of secrets, of old wounds, and older mysteries. But it was hers. And only one thing stood in her way: its former master, the hermit, the enigma… the man she was obliged to marry.
There is a curious mix of realism and common sense, with a dreaminess and internal fantasy life, in Celia that make her more likable than I had expected after reading the first chapter. At twenty seven, Celia is right both to feel resigned to spinsterhood, and to feel real trepidation at the prospect of living under the rule of her brother’s wife.
The reader can feel her grief at losing a beloved parent as well as her anguish at the hopeless future she sees before her. The change in her spirits upon learning that there is an alternative is liberating for both Celia and the reader.
For his part, Fenris von Wolfenbach—named after the mythical demonic dog of German lore—is a man tormented by his memories of war and by the injury that ended many of his hopes and aspirations, as well as by guilt at the terrible consequences his defiant decision to fight for the British in the Napoleonic Wars has brought upon his family’s honor and circumstances**. They have been stripped of their social privileges and most of their lands have been expropriated by the local government.
More than a decade after the end of the war, Celia’s arrival lands yet another blow to his conscience: Castle of Wolfenbach, which has belonged to his family for centuries, was auctioned by the duchy’s government while he was fighting. Only through the intervention of Celia’s father, an old friend of the old Gräf, has the family been able to remain at the castle. Now that he’s dead, the stipulations of his will mean that Celia must marry the Gräf’s son within four months in order to keep ownership of the Castle, or lose it to the local government.
The cast of characters is relatively small, including Fenris’ friend cum valet, Johann, and the other servants at the castle; the Gräf and Gräfin von Wolfenbach, Fenris’ parents; and his younger brother, Leopold. Mrs. Chisholm, a British widow originally engaged to chaperon and guide Celia from London to the Black Forest, becomes a friendly and… inspiring figure for our lonely heroine.
Eventually, Celia and Fenris are forced to marry, which solves the problem of the castle’s ownership. However, instead of bringing them closer, such a marriage seems to aggravate their differences. Weaved through the book are references to fairy tales, legends and myths, as well as a mythical treasure and legends of magic shrouding the castle and the forest that surrounds it.
I like the novelty of setting the story in Germany, since most romance novels set in this period seem to unfold in Britain, and I definitely like the fact that both protagonists are rather older than the norm for Regencies. By far, though, the part I liked best was the supernatural/mystical side of the story, which is interesting in itself, since it is more tangential than intrinsic to the development of the main story line.
The only truly jarring note occurs early in the book. When Celia arrives at the castle, she’s received by the Gräf and the Gräfin, who are clearly expecting her. Then Fenris arrives, and all hell breaks loose at Celia’s revelation that she owns the castle through her father’s will. Why? We have been shown that Fenris’ parents have received news of Celia’s father’s death, and that they know about the conditions of his will. We also know that this happens at least two weeks before her arrival at the castle—allowing for slower delivery of mail but also slower travel, plus we are told that three weeks pass before Celia sets out from Yorkshire. How can we believe that, during all this time neither the Gräf nor the Gräfin tell any of this to their eldest son, who lives in the castle and considers it pretty much the only part of his heritage left to the family?
While I understand the need to show Fenris’ shock, his anger, and his guilt at the revelation, it would have made more sense to have his parents as surprised by Celia’s arrival—if not by the conditions of her father’s will—as Fenris.
8 out of 10
**Fenris enrolled in the British Army in 1811, while Baden-Baden was still under control of France, which made his decision treason. Prussia and other German states didn’t ally with Britain until the following year.