Thursday, June 23, 2011

Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

Silent in the Sanctuary
by Deanna Raybourn
Mira, 2008
552 pages

Perhaps you thought I was kidding when I suggested I would be reading Silent in the Sanctuary almost immediately? Yes? I got it one day and I finished it the next, mostly by dint of being home sick in bed. The desire I had to read this book may make a sudden head cold and fever somewhat suspicious, but I swear whatever I have is unrelated.

So, here, Lady Julia Grey and her brothers, plus her brother's new Italian wife, and a young Italian count who has been a great friend to them in Florence, are summoned home in no uncertain terms for the Christmas holiday. Their father is extremely put out that Lysander has married in such a hurry, and Julia convinces (er, perhaps "bullies" might be the better word) everyone it would be by far the best course of action to go home and mollify the family patriarch. A number of surprises await, including the fact that Nicholas Brisbane (and his new fiancee, which is an even bigger surprise) have been invited to spend Christmas with the Marches, and also there happens to be a murder during a friendly family game of sardines.

What I found interesting about this book was how far the setting went to establishing a different tone for the story. Instead of the dark, crowded streets of London we have the bright, airy (read: "draughty") environs of the March country home, Bellmont Abbey. Julia is very comfortable with the space, and very fond of it, and that translates to the overall feeling of the book. Where she felt stifled in London at Grey House, as much as she loved the city itself, here we have a place where Julia is perfectly at home. Which is why it is such an affront to her, and why we understand her anger, when a body is found in her home space.

We know right off the top that something is going to happen; it is a mystery, and we know there will be a mystery to be solved. But once again, as with Silent in the Grave, Raybourn treats us to a slow, pleasant introduction, a study of Julia as we see how she's changed since the last book, and an introduction to new members of the group as well as a further growth of some of the characters we've met before. (Her elder sister Portia, a widow and unabashed bisexual living in a long-term relationship with her female partner, who I would peg as Julia's best friend, is a marvellously natural, charming character and I love her; on the other hand, I missed Valerius in this book, Julia's youngest sibling and aspiring surgeon, much to his father's dismay.) The family dynamics are engaging, the way they carry on is entertaining, and these secondary characters are one of the big reasons I enjoy these books so much.

Once again the interaction between Julia and Brisbane positively crackles, but though Julia thinks about him a lot and he chews the scenery any time he shows up, their relationship doesn't take centre stage. I thoroughly enjoy the interactions between them and how that changes and grows; I love that Julia is absolutely bound and determined that she will not let him coddle her or dismiss her, but that she will be his equal in whatever they do. It may seem a bit strange, a case of "modern woman, historical time," but I don't think that's fair to Raybourn's work here. She has quite carefully set up the March family to be a progressive, eccentric bunch, intelligent, educated and well-enough-off and established enough that they don't have to particularly care what society thinks of them, though there are often steps taken to keep the worst scandals under wraps. Julia is a product more of her family than of her time, a thing we see very clearly in the way she evolves throughout the first book. And her family is quite thoroughly believable.

Something Julia thinks about a lot is her privilege, the way that being the daughter of an Earl in a very old family affects her life. She thinks about this and money (they have poor relations visiting for Christmas, too), and through her we think about it too. She is well aware of the advantages she has, but she doesn't necessarily struggle with them so much as try to do her best to use those advantages to the good. It's not a focus, but it's present -- enough to make us realize that we are reading about a rarefied strata of society.

As for the mystery, again I had no clue, though I did this time have inklings of a motive that turned out to be well-founded. Not everything is tied up neatly, and some parts of the ultimate conclusion are fairly unsettling. These are not sad, cozy little murders; they are physically ugly, and the source of the discord is ugly, and the players, though not necessarily evil, are ugly, and the solutions are imperfect and sometimes ugly too. As it all should be.

I'll confess here that I've already read the third book. I wasn't going to get it soon enough from the library, so I actually bought an e-book and read it on the laptop. I am picking up the fourth book today and will likely have it read within the next 48 hours, which will leave me anxiously awaiting The Dark Enquiry, which I have placed on order at my favourite local book store.

Other books in the Lady Julia Grey mysteries:
1. Silent in the Grave

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