The Beautiful Ones
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a free e-book of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Even before that, I had pre-ordered the hardcover, because I have enjoyed everything I've read by this author. That statement is still true.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia dazzles again, in a way quite unlike anything she's done before. Most of her short stories are in the horror or fantasy vein, and she has also edited horror magazines and anthologies. Her first novel, Signal to Noise, leans toward magic realism, her second, Certain Dark Things, is modern-day vampire noir, as much a crime story as it is horror. If The Beautiful Ones had been set in England it could be described as a Regency romance, or maybe a novel of manners, but I think it safe to classify this an alternate world tale. Most character names sound French, and two place names came up in a search, both Loisail and Montipouret being communes in France. All others seem to be fictional, including the far away continent of Iblevad, described in such a way to evoke thoughts of South America. This society has photography, and motor cars are a relatively new technology, so it's similar to our late 19th Century, although other events and customs seem from an earlier era. I've never read similar romances, no Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, or Georgette Heyer, so I'm the last person to judge this by those standards. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it quite a bit, much more than I anticipated.
There is a fantasy twist though, however slight, with only one plot point hinging on it. The two main characters share the talent of telekinesis, something not that common, but not unheard of either. Hector Auvray utilizes his talent in professional theatrical performances. Antonina Beaulieu, who prefers to be called Nina, is a naive country girl visiting her cousin and his wife in Loisail for her first Grand Season, a succession of high society balls and parties. The intent is for Nina to attract a suitable husband, but she is unimpressed with the men her cousin-in-law Valerie recommends. It doesn't help that she's socially awkward, and sometimes unable to control her talent when she is upset, which led to her being nicknamed the Witch of Oldhouse in her youth. It is possible she was already a bit in love with Henry, since she had read about him and was in awe of his professional career. Their first encounter comes when she finds him alone in the library at one of the parties. Little does she know he was there to see someone else, whom he is disappointed to find had declined to attend. Shortly after that, Henry asks Nina's cousin for the right to court her.
The path to true love is seldom smooth. The courtship proceeds at a leisurely pace, more of a friendship than a romance, with Henry teaching Nina how to perfect her talent. He is the perfect gentleman, never overstepping the bounds of propriety. This isn't quite enough for Nina, and she invites him to visit her family home in Montipouret. One rainy afternoon she overcomes her shyness to kiss him, and receives a passionate kiss in return. Rather than Henry following that up with a proposal, which she had already hinted to her mother and sister she expected, he backs off and tells her their relationship should just be as friends. The next morning she discovers a secret that explains his reaction. Devastated and heart-broken, her anger causes her power to shatter several stained-glass windows of the home, and for several days afterward she sulks in her room. When she does return to Loisail the next year, she stays with her great aunts instead of her cousin.
The strengths of this novel are the vivid characters, lively dialog, evocative descriptions of place and mood. It is a bygone era, quaint of custom, and restrictive of personal expression, but it is also a society on the cusp of change. On the surface, Valerie seems the one more in tune with her environment, but Nina chafes at the notion her life has to be charted by someone else. She is intelligent, resourceful, and strong-willed, more content in her fascination with entomology than in the glitzy ballrooms and fashion houses of Loisail. Can such a woman find happiness and fulfillment in such a time and place as this? The answer is yes, although it is not easy, but I recommend you take the journey with her. As I have said about her previous books, Silvia weaves magic with her words, at once emotionally devastating and inspirational. Her worlds and characters are easily visualized. I see them in my mind, I'd like to see them on the screen. Somebody in Hollywood needs to call her agent. Soon!
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