A new Pink Carnation novel is always the highlight of my reading season, though the anticipation for The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla was stifling. How could Lauren Willig’s eleventh addition equal or surpass her previous highly-successful novels seeped in Napoleonic spies, romance and burlesque comedy? Yes, comedy. They say “dying is easy; comedy is hard” and it is so true. There are few authors in the genre who will even attempt it. Willig excels.
One of the main reasons I enjoy the “Pink” series so much (besides the humor) is that they take me back to Regency England, and the characters are SO original. Willig started the series in 2004 with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Each successive novel features a new set of protagonists: a romantic couple thrown together by mystery, espionage and love. After ten novels I have never been disappointed.
Set in 1806 London, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla re-introduces us to the three young Misses from Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in Bath, brought together in the seventh novel, The Mischief of the Mistletoe: Miss Sally Fitzhugh, Miss Agnes Wooliston and Miss Lizzy Reid. They are in Town for the Season, chaperoned by Lord and Lady Vaughn whose next door neighbor is reported to be a vampire. Yes, vampires are all the rage in London at the moment due to Lizzy Reid’s step-mother’s best-selling novel The Convent of Orsino. No one is above suspicion, especially aristocrats.
Bored by the soiree in progress, Sally takes up the challenge and enters the creepy, un-kept garden of the purported vampire next-door and immediately meets a tall, dark, pale stranger, Lucien, Duke of Belliston. Eeeek! Curiosity and sparks fly for the enigmatic duke and the adventurous Miss. After some witty repartee, Sally returns to her friends without any loss of blood or ego, determined to learn more about him. Her chance presents itself at the next ball, a coming out party for Lucien’s younger sister, who has been raised by their aunt and uncle at the family estate in England while Lucien escaped to his mother’s family in Louisiana. Their parent’s had died twelves year prior under a cloud of mystery. Was their death by poison an accident or murder? Haunted by scandal and his past, Lucien has returned to England to discover the truth. When Sally and Lucien re-connect at the party a mysterious note calls them to a midnight meeting in the garden only to discover a young woman dead on a marble bench—the blood drained from her throat. Shocked and horrified, Lucien and Sally are quick to notice that this is a staged murder in attempt to implicate Lucien. Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire slayings and uncover a decade-old murder of his parents.
Vampires? Really? I was skeptical. Haven’t vampires been done to death in novels lately? It didn’t take long for me to realize that this plot device was great fun – a way to bridge Gwendolyn Reid’s (nee Miss Gwendolyn Meadows) novel The Convent of Orsino, introduced in in The Passion of the Purple Plumeria and connect Sally Fitzhugh, sister of the famous Reginald “Turnip” Fitzhugh. Connections and creativity are what Willig is all about as a writer. Her historical research is also Nonpareil. Readers will be wowed by references to Gothic Fiction that Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland was addicted to in Northanger Abbey and all other manner of social context to the era and modern times including Monty Python Flying Circus jokes and Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly vampire Edward Cullen.
What sets this novel apart in the series is its new direction away from its roots: historical romance/spy/comedy/ adventure. There is still all the Willig style of high-burlesque comedy, witty banter and suspenseful adventure, but those dead set on a Napoleonic vs. British spy espionage will be thwarted. Refreshingly, this is a Regency-era mystery with undertones of spy themes. We still have the tepid modern day story of Eloise and Colin popping in to delay the historical action, but her hunky hero Lucien is one of her most swoon-worthy and her spunky heroine Sally is down-right adorable. Vampire plot not-with-standing, I was totally glamoured and entranced by every word.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel, by Lauren Willig
NAL Penguin (2014)
Trade paperback (496) pages
Cover image courtesy of NAL Penguin © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com
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