Seances, duels and Victorian manners are rolled into Evelyn Pryce's fun novel
December 18, 2016 12:00 AM
"The Thirteenth Earl," by Evelyn Pryce
By Leigh Anne Focareta
Most people remember the Victorian era as a time of extreme manners and fussy fashions, but it was also the age of spiritualism. The belief in communication with the dead and that ghosts have messages for the living were widely popular in both England and America throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many believers were sincere, but frauds and swindlers seeking to take advantage of mourners were also common.
"THE THIRTEENTH EARL"
By Evelyn Pryce Montlake Romance ($12.95).
Local author Evelyn Pryce’s most recent novel, “The Thirteenth Earl,” taps into this checkered history to deliver a shadow-tinted love story.
Jonathan Vane, Viscount Thaxton, considers himself mad, bad and too dangerous to wed. Known to society as “The Ghost,” Jonathan believes the curse that runs in his family will soon claim him, too, so why bother following the rules? Drinking and sulking are more appropriate pastimes for a doomed earl-to-be, so Jonathan is blindsided when the woman of his dreams appears at a house party thrown by his only friends.
Cassie Seton didn’t expect to meet someone like Jonathan. After all, she’s engaged to another man. So what if she hasn’t seen her fiancé in nine years? Reuniting at the house party is supposed to speed up the wedding plans, but meeting “The Ghost” gives Cassie second thoughts. Jonathan’s probably the least appropriate partner a lady could choose, for a number of reasons, but there’s something about him that she can’t ignore. Moreover, Cassie doesn’t believe in curses, and thinks the sulky lord could have a very nice life if he’d just work a little harder at it.
Determined to avoid each other, the unlikely lovers are thrown together when eerie wailing wakes them in the night. Determined to find the source and distract themselves from their feelings, Jonathan and Cassie convince their hosts to hold a séance. What the medium reveals, however, only makes matters worse when Jonathan’s deepest fears about becoming the 13th earl appear to be justified. Can Cassie convince him that ghosts and curses simply aren’t real?
If that sounds a bit like Mulder and Scully of “The X-Files” in fancy dress, you’re not far off the mark. Ms. Pryce’s skeptic/believer dichotomy is supported by historical details from spiritualist beliefs and historical hoaxes, the sources for which she kindly reveals in an afterword so curious readers can do their own research.
The seances and other supernatural scenes are appropriately thrilling and also, at times, positively hilarious thanks to Ms. Pryce’s penchant for snappy dialogue. Best of all, Evelyn Pryce breathes new life into the obligatory “dueling with pistols at dawn” scene, transforming it from a genre cliché into an amusing tables-turned situation that leads neatly to Cassie and Jonathan’s happily-ever-after.
It’s a pleasure to read a romance novel where the author knows the rules of the genre so well she can relax and have fun with them, and Ms. Pryce’s playfulness shines through every page.
If the book has one flaw, it’s that its secondary characters are somewhat flat (especially Cassie’s cartoon villain of a fiancé). Given that “The Thirteenth Earl” is the first book in a projected series, however, it’s safe to assume they’ll become more complex over time. This minor issue is also overshadowed by Ms. Pryce’s ability to write smoky love scenes, where kisses and flirting are just as important as the sexier moments.
Current historical romance fans will definitely appreciate the spirit of “The Thirteenth Earl,” especially if they liked “Northanger Abbey.” Even if you’re not fond of the genre, you might want to try it on for size.
Leigh Anne Focareta is a freelance writer and friendly neighborhood librarian.
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