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Review: Lady of Ashes by Christine Trent

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Lady of Ashes
Author: Christine Trent 
Release Date: Feb. 26 2013
Publisher: Kensington
Lady of Ashes #1
ISBN: #978-0758265913
Genre: Historical Mystery
Format(s): Paperback (420 pgs), e-book
Book Source: Publisher

About the book:

     In 1861 London, Violet Morgan is struggling to establish a good reputation for the undertaking business that her husband has largely abandoned. She provides comfort for the grieving, advises them on funeral fashion and etiquette, and arranges funerals.
     Unbeknownst to his wife, Graham, who has nursed a hatred of America since his grandfather soldiered for Great Britain in the War of 1812, becomes involved in a scheme to sell arms to the South. Meanwhile, Violet receives the commission of a lifetime: undertaking the funeral for a friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But her position remains precarious, especially when Graham disappears and she begins investigating a series of deaths among the poor. And the closer she gets to the truth, the greater the danger for them both…

What Una is talking about:

     Lady of Ashes is a book that piqued my interest.  I grew up watching Agatha Christie and Masterpiece Theatre with my mom.  There is a very soft spot in my heart for historical mysteries.  Only recently have I started indulging that love.  I requested this book from Twimom as a way to rekindle a love of a genre and fondly remember my mother as the anniversary of her death looms.  What better novel to read than a historical mystery about a female undertaker in Victorian England who may have uncovered a serial killer?
     First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed Lady of Ashes, once I let go of waiting for and eagerly searching for the mystery.  As the beginning book of a new series, there was quite of bit of building to where we discover the apparently odd deaths.  However, that is not to say that it is a bunch of historical “window dressing” drama.  Ms. Morgan is a fascinating character.  I found myself drawn to her, understanding her passion for a rather odd trade for a woman, especially a married one.  Her gentile nature combined with her iron backboard presented a female character that not only was realistic in the period, but understandable as she accepted her role in society (to an extent) even while pushing boundaries.
     By a twist of fate, Ms. Morgan is accidentally acquainted with the Prince Consort, who is impressed by Violet’s skills as an undertaker.  Here is an excerpt that nicely sums up how Ms. Morgan is viewed by her peers:

     The queen handed the card back to her husband with a sniff.  “You say this woman was actually embalming a man?  How horrifying for you, my love.”
Albert tucked the card inside the top desk drawer of the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, originally built as a fortress and now the longest-occupied palace in Europe.  The present residents enjoyed luxurious state apartments, renovated early in the century by George IV.  Victoria brought further improvements to the castle, including running water, but had refused the installation of gas lights, preferring candles as so many Britons did.
“Quite the opposite.  I was enthralled.  Curious that we aren’t doing it here.  It seems a worthy endeavor to me.”
“Hardly!” Victoria wrinkled her nose.  “It sounds like a disgusting practice to me.  And being performed by a woman, no less.”
“I thought so at first, too, but she was very competent, liebchen.”   He tapped the desk drawer.  “Remember Ms. Morgan when my time comes.”

     This excerpt is also an excellent example of how Ms. Trent adds those historical facts without it reading or feeling like a history lesson.  That aspect is something that tends to dissuade me from reading some historical novels; if I wanted a history lesson, I would take a class or buy a textbook.  However, these facts and milestones are seamlessly woven into the storyline, enriching the storytelling.
     The only complaint I had, which was really just a misunderstanding of the summary excerpt I had read, made me feel as if the whole of the novel was a murder mystery.  It is only a small portion (and nearer to the end), but what was a complete surprise to me (quite enthrallingly) were the domestic conflicts that seemed to take center stage.  The novel summary in this review is far more accurate a description and should not give the misconception I had.  The trials that Ms. Morgan faces for a Victorian woman, I feel, would have broken anyone else.  I truly admire her will and strength of character.  Reading about this period in her life was truly fascinating.
     The escape I found in Lady of Ashes was immensely enjoyable and a world I look forward to revisiting.  The next book in the series is scheduled for sometime next year.  If you have any interest in historical mysteries, I am confident you would enjoy Lady of Ashes.

Unas Rating:

Enjoyed – strongly recommend (A-)
 
Purchase Info:
Lady of Ashes
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