Rummanah Aasi
As you can probably tell I was on a Victorian period kick last year so I was really excited to hear about Lynn Renee Heiber's debut YA novel Darker Still. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Netgalley for allowing me to read an advanced reader's copy of the book. Despite its New York setting, the book definitely captures the vibe of a Gothic Victorian romantic suspense. While I enjoyed the book, it didn't meet my expectations and left me a bit disappointed.

Description (from Goodreads):  It was as if he called to me, demanding I reach out and touch the brushstrokes of color swirled onto the canvas. It was the most exquisite portrait I'd ever seen--everything about Lord Denbury was unbelievable...utterly breathtaking and eerily lifelike.
   There was a reason for that. Because despite what everyone said, Denbury never had committed suicide. He was alive. Trapped within his golden frame. I've crossed over into his world within the painting, and I've seen what dreams haunt him. They haunt me too. He and I are inextricably linked--bound together to watch the darkness seeping through the gas-lit cobblestone streets of Manhattan. Unless I can free him soon, things will only get Darker Still.

Review: Natalie Stewart has been mute for as long as she can remember. She records her life experiences in a journal which she received as a gift on her exit from the Connecticut Asylum, an institution that serves people with disabilities. Natalie is not your conventional Victorian woman who is passive and demure. She is actually very charming, fiesty, and hates when others feel sorry for her because of her impairment. She takes her disability in stride and makes the best of it instead of moping about it. Her mannerisms and her writing style demonstrate that she is intelligent and observant. Her mundane world changes the moment she encounters a cursed painting and she is immediately drawn into the world of spiritualism and demonic possession.
  The famous portrait is of a very handsome young English Lord named Jonathon Denbury. Lord Denbury has been missing and presumed dead for many years. There is a legend that says that he had committed suicide after learning about his parents death in an accident. Natalie quickly learns after seeing the famous lord's portrait that he is very much alive and stuck inside the painting. She also discovers that some who looks exactly like Lord Denbury is terrorizing New York City. Natalie is the only connection Denbury has to the real world, and she and Mrs. Northe, a wealthy intellectual spiritualist, strive to free him before his soul is forfeited.
  I liked Lord Denbury and thought he was charming, though I didn't think his character had enough depth to make him interesting or stand out. I couldn't understand why women fell for him. We are only told how extremely handsome he is and that's really about it. Since this is a first book in what seems like a series, I hope to learn more about him. My favorite character by far is Mrs. Northe. She is intelligent, open minded, a spiritualist who is willing to acknowledge the whisperings of the supernatural, and a force to be reckoned with.
  While romance plays a big part in the book, especially to the build up to the kiss between Lord Denbury and Natalie, I didn't really feel the connection between them. There is a strong insta-love that happens between them and we don't really seem interact on a romantic level. If there weren't any declarations of love spoken between them, I would've thought Natalie was only used as a tool to help Lord Denbury break his curse and that's about it. I would have liked to be shown more emotion between them instead of being told.
  The premise of Darker Still has great appeal. The homage to famous writers such as Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde is obvious yet you can enjoy the book without reading the classics. Darker Still is an epistolary novel composed of news articles, journals, and various letters which evoke Stoker's Dracula, but this narrative choice dampens both momentum and suspense. The reason why this style worked for Stoker is because his novel is told through many points of view and not everyone knew what was happening which heightened the suspense. In Darker Still almost everything is told by Natalie and the events described are never seen by the reader but told through our heroine as before and after. While the plot has many similarities to The Picture of Dorian Gray, there really isn't much of the same drama and I think the main reason for this is that we got to see Dorian as a fleshed out character in Wilde's book instead of a merely portrait. Lord Denbury doesn't have much oomph to make him important or mysterious even when he seems to have a demon lookalike running around.
  There are some plot twists that are entirely too convenient. Heiber does a good job bringing Victorian England to New York, but the elements of melodramatic gothic and supernatural swashbuckler never quite meld. After a strong start, I began to lose interest in the book before the climax and actually figured out the mystery and its resolution long before the characters did. While I did have issues with the book, I would recommend it to readers who enjoy Gothic romantic suspense novel and I'm curious enough to see what happens next to Natalie and Lord Denbury.

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: There are some disturbing images and some language. There is also scenes and/or discussion of opium dens where drug use and sex with prostitutes are alluded. Recommended for Grades 7 and up.

If you like this book try: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman, the Gemma Doyle series by Libba Bray, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, or Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey
4 Responses
  1. I've been hearing a lot of mixed reviews about this one. The insta love and lack of connection would get to me. But the premise is so cool.

  2. Jenny Says:

    I really enjoyed this one, but I agree that we don't really know much about Denbury at all while reading. I'm wondering if she'll continue the journal format in the second book or if she'll switch so we can maybe connect with him a bit more? We'll have to see I guess! Beautiful and thorough review as always Rummanah!

  3. Hmm... sounds like Lord Denbury could have used a bit more character development to stand out. I hate being told that a guy is swoon worthy without being able to see why for myself. That paired with the lack of chemistry between the pair will probably keep me from reading this but I think the tie to the classics is cool.

  4. The main thing that bothered me about this one was the sloooow pace. I loved Natalie as a character though and agree that Lord Denbury needs a little more depth.

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