A Perilous Undertaking: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn, 352pp, hardcover, Berkley Books/Penguin Random House, January, 2017
First of all, I really enjoyed this book, the second in a series, and I liked this one even more than the first, A Curious Beginning, which I liked a lot.
Deanna Raybourn is a gifted stylist, an accomplished writer whose erudite prose flows with seemingly effortless glisten, glitters with sly and subtle wit, all the while propelling clever and fast-paced plots which are full of surprises and period detail both fascinating and informative.
Veronica Speedwell, Butterfly Hunter, is an irresistible character, independent of spirit, steely of spine, with an intense appetite for life, and she does not suffer fools. Her cohort, Stoker, tattooed, eye-patched, long-haired, hot-bodied historian, is equally intriguing. Both have mysterious (though, eventually, revealed, at least to each other) heritage and stubbornly intense opinions and ethical-behavioral codes which sometimes conflict and clash, but just as often coalesce, all of which serve to confound each other and the reader — or, at least, this reader, who wants nothing more than for the two of them to finally strip naked and make Victorian whoopee.
Here is the publisher’s synopsis:
London, 1887. Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task—saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman’s noose in a week’s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.
But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems, and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer—a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia’s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime. From a Bohemian artists’ colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed….
Like I said, I enjoyed this book immensely, but not just because of all those reasons I’ve cited. It also struck a very personal note with me. Let me try to explain as succinctly as I can.
Other than reading, one of the things I do to maintain my sanity — and I will not, here, be drawn into a debate about the success of those efforts — is to collect on Pinterest and Tumblr photos and documentation documenting and celebrating the presence of LGBTQ people throughout history.
We have always been here, we’ve just been rendered mostly invisible or, when seen, portrayed as other, perverted, criminal, outside the norm by a culture ruled in large part by a white-male-hetero-normative christian partriarchy, near fascist in its insistence on what constituted normal, what was allowed and approved.
In my youth, the prevalence and repetition from media, my church, and my community and family of the message that being not quite male enough — which later transferred into being gay — made me other and was, somehow, wrong and rare and outside the norm, distorted the way in which I saw myself, the way in which I approached life. I have always thought of myself as less than, an outlier, in danger because of who I am and how I behaved and loved; and even now (hell, especially now since November 8) I must be on guard every day, every moment, and work to remind myself I am enough.
I wish that in my youth I had had examples in media, in life, in the thousands of books I read, of queer people who were not criminal or mentally ill or villains. I wish I’d had access to a literature in which queer people were just queer people, living their lives, a part of the world not hidden or other.
We existed. Throughout history. Throughout time. And, too, so did strong, independent women with healthy appetites for life and sex and adventure. Women who made their way being strong, being themselves, and were not burnt as witches or tarred and feathered.
Deanna Raybourn has written just such a woman. And, not only that, she’s given her (and Stoker) live and let live, enlightened attitudes about queer love. In a Victorian setting. And reading it today gave me hope. Reading it today reminded me the world has always had people in it of expansive mind and attitude. Reading it today made me appreciate even more Deanna Raybourn’s gifts as writer (and human being) because she sees and writes Light. She sees and writes and makes visible the hearts and characters who have not been seen and written nearly as much as they ought to have been throughout history.
Deanna Raybourn manages to write power in a way not polemical or preachy, but simply truthful and robustly human and real. I wish I had had this to read when I was younger, and I am ecstatic that it exists now.
(I was not sent a pre-publication copy of this book; I got it for myself. While I follow Deanna Raybourn on Twitter, and she follows me, we have never met and rarely interact, in fact, often when I comment she does not reply — nor should she, that’s not a criticism, merely me letting you, the reader, know I am not a shill, just a fan of a gifted writer. Thanks for reading.)